Short stories from a long road: James McMurtry delivers a standout show at The Drake

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-30-2023 2:25 PM

He’s been hailed as one of the best songwriters around, a troubadour of small-town America and the hardscrabble lives of its citizens.

But James McMurtry has always taken a low-key approach to his music, and he did it again last week when he played a sold-out show at The Drake in Amherst, heading up quietly to the stage and strapping on an acoustic guitar without a word, before many in the audience even realized he was there.

But as soon as he started playing his Americana/roots rock tunes, the Austin, Texas-based singer and songwriter, who’s been touring and recording albums for some 35 years, had everyone’s attention.

He followed an opening set by another talented Texas performer, BettySoo.

And as if to mark the length of his career, McMurtry, wearing jeans, a loose buttoned shirt, and a trademark soft-brimmed hat, began his set with “Painting by Numbers,” the very first track from his first album, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” released back in 1989. It’s a tune that’s a lament for anyone who’s ever had a dead-end job, especially in the vaunted “service economy.”

“You’re painting by numbers / connecting the dots / You work from the neck down, you don’t call the shots / You jump when they say jump / And you don’t ask how high / ‘Cause painting by numbers, you know you’ll get by.”

That song, in a sense, has served as a perfect introduction to McMurtry’s career, in which he’s chronicled the lives of the working class, creating intimate portraits of people struggling to make it, often in depressed heartland towns or on played-out farms where jobs have disappeared and loneliness and alienation have taken their place.

At The Drake, he ran through a number of his earlier songs while focusing on cuts from this two most recent albums, “Copper Canteen” from 2015 and “The Horses and the Hounds” from 2021.

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On all of them, he showcased his skilled work on 6- and 12-string acoustic guitar, mixing taut strumming, flatpicked leads and some varied tunings that sometimes gave his guitar a rich, chiming sound.

McMurtry’s plain, understated vocals — at times more of a talking blues than anything else — have always been a good match for the straightforward melodies and chords of his songs. But he’s also adept at altering the tone of his delivery to reflect the mood of his songs’ first-person narrators.

At the Drake, after playing another older cut, “Saint Mary of the Woods,” McMurtry strapped on his 12-sting acoustic to do the heavier “Red Dress,” a tune built around an insistent rock-style riff and sung from the standpoint of a mean drunk.

But then he played “Copper Canteen,” which begins with a seemingly menacing line — “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun” — but is actually a song about the longstanding love between an elderly couple.

The singer prompted some laughs when he said “Canteen” had been featured in a New York Times Magazine article some years back, “Or the failing New York Times, as some people call it, ” a seeming reference to a remark by a former U.S. president now running for office again.

“I don’t know if it’s failing,” he observed. “It still seems to be in print.”

No one mistakes McMurtry for a sensitive singer-songwriter or calls his songs “heartfelt,” but the best of his writing can be heartbreaking. The son of the late novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, he writes with the precision of a short story writer and a poet.

“I work in rhyme and meter,” he said. “That’s what I do.”

At The Drake, he played “Jackie” from his newest album, a waltz-time ballad about a woman who breaks horses and has taken up truck driving to help pay the bills — till she comes to a terrible end.

“She jack knifed on black ice with an oversized load / There’s a white cross in the borrow ditch where she went off the road / She wasn’t going that fast, the responders all say / How it ended that bad, we can wonder all day.”

And on “Canola Fields,” the kickoff cut from “The Horses and the Hounds,” he recounted the regrets of an older man, looking back on a love he let slip away and wishes he could renew: “Take my hand, Marie / Take a death grip on some part of me / Keep me from drifting far out to sea.”

In a number of past interviews, including one with the Gazette several years ago, McMurtry has said his songs are not autobiographical, even if you’re tempted to see elements of his taciturn persona in the hard-luck characters from some of those tunes.

Yet it’s hard not to see McMurtry, who’s now 61, thinking a bit about his own mortality in a song like “If It Don’t Bleed,” a cut off his newest album that includes lines like “Now it’s all I can do just to get out of bed/There’s more in the mirror than there is up ahead/I smile and I nod like I heard what you said.”

At The Drake, though, McMurtry also showed flashes of his dark humor, such as when he introduced “Ain’t Got a Place,” describing how he’d written the song when a problem during a recording session had made him repair to a nearby bar to work out his frustrations.

“I was just about in that perfect moment of being drunk and pissed off,” he said to laughter. “Got the mixture just right, and then I had to write fast.”

He also played a longtime crowd favorite, “Chocktaw Bingo,” a profile of a dysfunctional family reunion built around moonshine, crystal meth, and lots of firearms and ammo — “We’re gonna have us a time” — the lines all delivered in a kind of country rap, with McMurtry playing quick leads up the neck of his 12-string.

And he introduced “If It Don’t Bleed” by saying it was actually “a fairly upbeat” number though “it does retain the air of cynicism of a typical McMurtry song.”

The Texas tunesmith offered some other old favorites, from “Hurricane Party” to “Levelland” to “Peter Pan.” And to a standing ovation, he closed the show with two of his newer songs, including the folky “State of the Union,” an ironic ode to the way tribal politics and a sense of aggrievement drive the members of one family apart.

The laconic chorus sums it all up: “It’s the state of the union I guess / It’s always been iffy at best / We’re all in the family, the cursed and the blessed / It’s the state of the union I guess.”

Now if only I can get to see McMurtry when he tours as part of his small rock band …

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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