photos by Glenn Cook
James McMurtry was one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school. Having arrived in Boston, fresh from the revelatory oasis of my UC Berkeley undergraduate years, I was pretty certain the world had shown me what it could. Intellectual prowess, philosophical abandon, and mindful debauchery had been fused into a fledgling, yet purposeful, identity.
Boston was cold and dreary, classes were grey and unforgiving, a startling contrast to the communal spirit and raised consciousness housed on Ward street. We cooked vegetarian, loved freely, and protested fully; Donald Trump’s America was an Orwellian fable, a cautionary tale of hyperbolic proportion, its malignant intent foreshadowed but not yet fathomed in the relative predictability of the Bush years.
Too Long in the Wasteland, James McMurtry’s brilliant inaugural album (1989), rooted in a geography far removed from the rarefied and fractured Fenway landscape I now called home, was a courting gift that Dan, soon to be my graduate school boyfriend, offered as a way to cheer me up. He was determined to posit the existence of a quieter more authentic world outside both heady idealism and acerbic academia. Along with Peter Taylor’s rich stories of everyday life in the South and Charles Wright’s bucolic meditations, Dan proffered James McMurty’s genius, channeled through rich guitar riffs and carefully crafted wry observations of American experience, as his proofs.
I have been an unabashed devotee of James McMurty ever since. He is one of what I call my DNA musicians, referring to the small group of artists who help me through and lift me up, and provide at times perspective and vision. If neither happens to be within my reach, at least McMurtry suggests the certainty that someone somewhere is playing a mean 12-string guitar, and without pomp or circumstance, speaking “the truth.”
Both backstory and full disclosure, the above acknowledges what I brought to The Birchmere Thursday night for James McMurtry’s solo performance. Unpretentious, not a bell or a whistle within spitting distance, The Birchmere is my favorite DC area venue in which to see McMurtry. He just makes sense there, with his dry humor and no bullshit demeanor, surrounded by his die-hard fans,who—and I will stand by this statement until I am proven wrong—are a damn special group of people.
“How’s everyone doing,?” McMurtry asks, and without further adieu, we are off. His opener, the stunning “Saint Mary of the Woods” (2002), from his sixth album of the same name, reaffirms what was famously stated by suspense writer, Stephen King, and is understood by everyone lucky enough to be in attendance Thursday night: “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”
Saint Mary is typical of those about whom McMurtry writes. But it is not enough to say that his characters are “sad” or “down on their luck.” His particular genius is in capturing incarnate a certain quality that speaks to what it means to be human. His ability to create the ineffable, existential, and, ultimately, inescapable space we all are destined to occupy, no matter how great are our efforts to anesthetize and/or flee.
Perhaps McMurtry’s did learn a thing or two from his Pulitzer Prize winning father, the writer, Larry McMurtry, as is evident in the song’s exquisite imagery:
Sunrise off the lake shining in your eyes
Shining on the wasted and the wise
All you hear ringing in your ears are
That scream like the gulls in that smoke stained amber sky
And, several lines later, in typical McMurtury songwriting fashion, a small detail regarding Saint Mary’s stance emerges to suggest an almost palpable despair:
Where you goin’
Brandy on your breath
Bottle’s open spilled across the desk
Snifter’s broken, smashed against the wall
Just the way you’re standin’ says it all
A crowd favorite, “Red Dress,” came next which highlights the humor McMurtry often weaves into his narratives:
Yes I’m drunk but damn you’re ugly
Tell you one thing yes I will
Tomorrow morning I’ll be sober
You’ll be just as ugly still
Recalling an insult, which may or may not have been used by Winston Churchill (depends on which source you believe) against a female politician, who accused him of being “disgustingly drunk” at a party, McMurtry makes the sentiment his own in this jilted lover’s tale of suspicion and reprisal.
Because James McMurtry’s songwriting puts him in the company of such greats as Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, and Bob Dylan (yes, Bob Dylan), his accomplished guitar playing at times does not get the attention it deserves. Seeing him solo, even while recognizing the rocking greatness that the Heartless Bastards bring to his shows, allows the sheer force of his guitar playing talent to take center stage. Mostly self-taught, he played first a 6-string guitar and then a 12-string Thursday night, both with a virtuosity and speed that produced so dense a sound it seemed as if there were two other guitars behind him.
A soul searing guitar solo during the heartbreak of “Rachel’s Song,” another startling track from Saint Mary of the Woods, illuminates the collective impact of McMurtry’s talent. A “lyrically perfect song….one of my favorite things anybody has ever written,” as Jason Isbell has commented on Twitter– sung through the signature clenched delivery of his voice–and combined with his alternate tuning techniques and a partial capo, create that singular sound that is James McMurtry’s.
Another pleasant fact of Thursday night’s performance was Bonnie Whitmore, the confident in your face vocal dynamite that opened for McMurtry. I had never listened to Whitmore’s music before and found her stage presence and candor to be a fitting warm-up for what was to follow.
“I have 45 minutes to make you like or hate me.” Whitmore quipped before her first song. “I am not going to be gentle. Here’s a little song about masochism.” “Wash It Away,” from her 2016 album, F*@k with Sad Girls, began her set and pretty much set the tone for both the songs she would play and the banter she would deliver.
Originally Whitmore, who hails from one of Americana music’s second homes, Austin, Texas, rocked a country vibe, but lately, with titles like, “She’s a Hurricane” and “F*@k with Sad Girls,” punctuated with cathartic wails and melodic rage, her genre defies a simple definition. “She reminds me of Hole’s Courtney Love,” one member of our group suggested, and I could see what he meant.
Bluesy, Jazzy, and current, Whitmore’s music is imbued with an intelligence and fierceness that complements the lovely range and pitch of her voice. Her presence struck me as the opposite of James Mcmurtry on that stage. I remember thinking that she offered the audience a glimpse of what an antidote to the anxiety and resignation some of James McMurtry’s characters exhibit; I also remember thinking that in many ways Bonnie Whitmore exudes the entire package of power, beauty, talent, and presence.
Finally, a highlight of Thursday night’s show was when James McMurtry played one of my favorite songs, Hurricane Party, from his album, Just Us Kids (2008). The quiet nostalgia of its lines might be typical of McMurtry, but the visceral longing he conveys is what gets me right in the gut:
My one great love, my God, I can feel her still
She ran off to California and now she’s living in those Hollywood hills
With some bullfrog prince, I’ve not seen her since
Though she calls when he’s out of town
There’s just no one to talk to
when the lines go down
Open up your back screen door
Let me in your space once more
I was looking for an easy score
But it just don’t work that way
Perhaps the reason I identify so strongly with such nostalgic desire can be understood through how I was introduced to McMurtry’s music in the first place. My relationship with Dan ended after about two years, but not before I had fully digested the things I would learn from him. Dan’s quiet persistence and self-assuredness in showing me a way of being in the world that was more honest and more sustainable than I had allowed myself in the past proved just as important as the graduate degree I would earn while we were together.
As did, of course, the take-aways, one of which became an almost 30 year love affair with the music of James McMurtry. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/