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James McMurtry goes acoustic at the Dakota (Review + Interview)

James McMurtry
Photo: Brian T. Atkinson

There aren’t many writers that can match James McMurtry’s eye for detail, the depth of his characters, and his ability to turn a phrase. This was all on display at Saturday night’s solo acoustic gig at the Dakota. 

McMurtry’s songs told story after story, each line and verse revealing additional layers of stories and characters. The strong setlist included old favorites (“Levelland,” “No More Buffalo”) and newer entries into the catalog (2017 single “State of the Union” was well received).

Songs from 2015’s Complicated Game were represented as well, and provided some of the highlights of the night. The album, one of the strongest Americana efforts of the previous decade, was McMurtry’s most recent full-length. Released to critical acclaim, it featured the kind of well-crafted writing and storytelling that longtime fans have become accustomed to.

Early appearances of “Copper Canteen” and “You Got to Me,” both among the album’s best and most evocative tracks, proved to be more than worthy of their inclusion in the set. The latter, one of the more devastating songs McMurtry has written, is a good point of entry into his music. Emotionally vivid and expertly crafted, the story it tells is painfully relatable.

With a new label (New West) and a new record (produced by Longtime collaborator Ross Hogarth) planned for release some time in the near future, there’s a lot to be excited for in the world of James McMurtry. Old and new appreciated the work of a true master at Saturday’s show.

Check out our exclusive interview with James McMurtry below!

 

MIM: I’m curious about the impact of family on your musical or creative trajectory. Coming from a father who is a noted writer and a mother who is a college professor, how did that influence you and set you on a creative track?

JM: I don’t know that that sent me on any track. It made it easier when I actually did it. My dad was supportive because he’d done that himself, broke out of ranching – he comes from a ranching family – he didn’t care anything about horses or cows, he wanted to read all the time, and they found that a little odd.

He broke the mold, I didn’t have to do that. As far as a creative path, that probably has more to do with listening Johnny Cash from a very early age, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

MIM: When did you start hearing them?

JM: My earliest memories are from Houston. We had an old mono record player. I guess one of the first albums we had wasn’t really recorded as an album, it was just a bunch of singles from Sun Studios, it was all of Johnny Cash’s hits from his Memphis days, recorded with Sam Phillips. My dad was a Dylan fan. I didn’t care for him, I thought he sang funny.

MIM: Did you grow into Dylan?

JM: Yeah I did. It wasn’t too long after that that Cash had that TV show, and he had Bob Dylan on his show. I thought “well, Johnny likes him, he must be ok.” I was about nine when somebody turned me on to Kris Kristofferson. He was the first one that identified to me as a songwriter. I hadn’t given any thoughts to where songs came from up to that point.

My first concert was a big package concert with Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, and Carl Perkins opened the whole bill. The next show I got to see was Kristofferson. I think they were just about to put out the Jesus was a Capricorn record. They looked like they were having an incredibly good time, and I thought “that’s what I want to do.”

MIM: You worked with Ross Hogarth on this new album, who you’ve worked with before in other contexts and roles. How does that familiarity in the studio shape it, or how did having him in a new role shape it?

JM: Part of what shaped it is we’ve all gotten so much older. Ross was Mellencamp’s engineer thirty years ago, that’s when I met him. He recorded and mixed both of my first two records. David Grissom played guitar on both of those records, and he’s on this record too.

I’ve kept in closer contact with ross. I hired Ross when I first started trying to produce my own records. I brought him Saint Mary of the Woods to mix, which he pretty much saved. I did three studio records, and a couple live records. It just got to where it felt like I used up all of my tricks, I was starting to repeat myself stylistically.

For the last record I got C.C. Adcock, went and did that in New Orleans. I got Ross on this record. I don’t know what I’ll do next time. I’m pretty much going back to producer school.

MIM: The last record was much more acoustic than the previous, is that an area you’ll explore on this record?

JM: This one’s a rock record

MIM: You just signed to New West, one of my favorite labels. How did you get to working with them?

JM: It came about because of Logan Rodgers, who owns lightning rod records. He put out my last studio record, and all of the live records. He has the licenses on all the Compadre stuff. I’ve been working with Logan for awhile, and he’s a VP at New West Now. He got me the deal, he and my manager.

MIM: How has working with labels changed throughout your career?

JM: I started out on a major label, which is a whole different deal. They had huge departments full of people trying to act like they were useful. There was more pressure on the major labels because there was more money swinging around, more egos.

New West pretty much leaves me alone. Lightning Rod, Compadre, and Sugar Hill, everybody I was with in the meantime, the budgets were minuscule, like $15,000 to make the whole record. We learned to do things cheap. Which is good, because now you have to do it cheap.

MIM: Your style of storytelling is emotionally vivid and resonant. It’s detail-oriented and comes across as felt and authentic. I’m thinking of the song “You Got to Me” in particular.  When you’re writing a song like that, or any song, how do you get to that level where it’s so vivid? Is it something that comes to you naturally through observation? Or personal experience?

JM: Very little of it is personal experience. My songs are fiction, for the most part. That song took me over twenty years to write piece by piece. It’s kind’ve dated – we haven’t had hard subway tokens in a long long time. There’s other songs that just take minutes, you never know.

MIM: Is there any song that came really quick that you look back on as a favorite?

JM: “Ain’t got a place” on the last record. That’s the shortest time I ever spent on a song. It was just wordplay.

Written by Aaron Williams

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