Singing the small-town blues: James McMurtry plays Gateway City Arts

  • James McMurtry has won wide acclaim for his songs about small-town life in America and the country’s fractured politics.  Photo by Brian T. Atkinson

  • Celebrated singer-songwriter James McMurtry played Gateway City Arts in Holyoke this past weekend. Photo by Mary Keating-Bruton

  • Celebrated singer-songwriter James McMurtry played Gateway City Arts in Holyoke this past weekend. Photo by Mary Keating-Bruton

  • McMurtry’s most recent studio album, 2015’s “Complicated Game,” prompted one critic to call it “brilliant, dense and thoughtful.”

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 07, 2019

Singer-songwriters don’t have the easiest gig. Every night they have to get up in front of an audience and entertain with music and conversation, with no one to rely on for backup.

James McMurtry has to do it pretty much on his music alone, as he’s not one for much small talk from the stage. But with his closely observed stories of people living hardscrabble lives, as well as his skilled work on guitar, the celebrated songwriter and veteran folk-rock performer gets the job done.

The Texas-based McMurtry came to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke last Saturday for a set that included his newest single, “State of the Union,” as well as numerous other songs stretching back to some his earlier albums from the 1990s, such as “Where’d You Hide the Body” and “It Had to Happen.” For much of the show, he played a 12-string acoustic guitar that gave his tunes a booming base and also lent a full sound to his quick but inventive instrumental leads.

Playing on Gateway’s main stage, before about 300 people seated on folding chairs or standing toward the back of the hall near Gateway’s Beer Garden, the low-key McMurtry took a low-key approach right from the start: He came on stage without any announcement, strapped on his six-string acoustic guitar and began checking the tuning before almost anyone realized he was there.

And though he kept the show’s focus on his music, McMurtry, who turns 57 in a few weeks, made a few comments that spoke to the strained times in our country, mentioning he’d been profiled in a New York Times Magazine article a few years ago and was happy to be part of “something that used to be considered important, a free press.”

He also asked any audience members getting food or drink to tip Gateway servers at least 20 percent: “I think we can all appreciate how important a good tip is, since there’s maybe two people here tonight who didn’t have a service job at some point.”

Following an opening set by fellow Austin, Texas singer-songwriter Bonnie Whitmore, McMurtry began his with “Melinda,” one of his older love songs and like many of his tunes a first-person narrative: “I wanna walk with you in the changing light / When the shadows twist and play / And the ghosts that kept me out all night / We can chase ‘em all away.… Open the shades Melinda, let in the outside air.”

McMurtry, whose music often gets labeled Americana — something too folkie for country music but too rocking to be called folk — also plays electric guitar as part of a three-piece band, and he brings a lot of that dynamic to his solo acoustic work, creating a jangling sound that incorporates taut strumming, quick leads and fills with his flatpick, and varied tunings. On “Melinda,” he even used two capos on the guitar, sometimes fingering the strings between the two.

After another older tune, “Saint Mary of the Woods,” McMurtry strapped on his 12-string acoustic and burned through “Where’d You Get That Red Dress?” a song built around some repeated, almost rock-heavy riffs, prompting one enthusiast in the crowd to yell out at the end “Yeah, Jim! Do it! C’mon, Jim!”

McMurtry, the son of the celebrated novelist Larry McMurty, has made his literary name writing the musical equivalent of short stories: intimate portraits of people struggling to get by, often in small, Midwestern towns that have become centers of alienation, lost jobs, drug addiction and loneliness. His voice is a match for those stories, a kind of deadpan drawl that occasionally reaches for higher notes but usually suggests more of a talking blues.

But for all the bleakness of some of his songs, McMurty offers droll humor and satire in others. He introduced one of them by mentioning that his father, who he referred to as “Larry,” had renounced his interest in the Methodist Church at age 14 to become an atheist and that “I was happy to follow in his footsteps … But right now we’re gonna take a trip to the Crystal Meth Church of Oklahoma.”

With that he launched into “Chocktaw Bingo,” one of his most popular songs, a profile of a dysfunctional family reunion that includes characters like Uncle Slayton, who “cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell,” and a gun-happy couple who arrive stocked with weapons and ammo including “some surplus tracers for that old BAR of Slayton's / Soon as it gets dark we're gonna have us a time.”

Some in the crowd danced to the driving, swamp-rock beat, the rapid-fire lyrics and a fairly extended solo McMurty launched up the neck of the guitar, leaving the upper strings open to increase the 12-string’s chiming effect.

He slowed things down when he played some cuts from his most recent studio album, 2015’s “Complicated Game,” including “Copper Canteen,” a tune about about an elderly couple saving their pennies for retirement, remembering the hard times they’ve been through, including the Great Depression.

It’s an unexpectedly sweet tale of long-standing love — especially because it begins with the seemingly menacing line “Honey, don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun” — with the narrator describing how his wife calms his nightmares by holding him “tight ...’til I’m weightless and then I can rest.”  

McMurtry also joked that “Ain’t Got a Place,” another of the cuts from “Complicated Game,” wasn’t even supposed to be on the album. He noted that another song planned for the disc wasn’t working out, and he was drinking in a bar near the studio, “feeling pissed off,” when the new tune quickly came to him “in a way that songs almost never do.”

The lyrics speak to the feelings of restlessness and melancholy that characterize many of his songs, but with a kind of timelessness that echoes the theme of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads: "The skies are taller in Louisiana / The skies are wider in New Mexico / The skies in Texas kinda split the difference / They don’t suit me no matter where I go.”

Toward the end of his set, he unveiled the folky “State of the Union,” his newest single, which offers some tart commentary on the tribal politics of today’s America, with two brothers turning family get-togethers into nasty affairs over their disagreements. 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.” 

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