James McMurtry Makes His Case – Annapolis Songwriter’s Festival
Rams Head on Stage, Annapolis, MD, September 18, 2022
by Mark Pelavin
Closing out the Inaugural Annapolis Songwriter Festival, James McMurtry made a powerful case for being recognized as the premier songwriter of this generation. It’s as if he looked at the 65 or 70 songwriters who performed over the previous three days and said, “ok, now let me show you how it’s done.”
Of course, it’s more likely that McMurtry paid no attention to the goings on in Annapolis that weekend. But, still, I would put his catalogue – ten albums of new songs and a few concert recordings – up against any contemporary songwriter.
“I work in rhyme and meter,” McMurtry told the sold-out crowd. It came off as self-effacing, but the truth is that McMurtry “works in rhyme and meter” the same way that Edward Hopper “worked in” oil paint or Quentin Tarantio “works in” film: as an artist. His songs convey the loneliness of Hopper’s paintings, but with the energy (and sometimes the violence) of a Tarantio film.
McMurtry is basically not a performer. He never tries to win over an audience; his stage presence is unremarkable. The songs have to – and do — speak for themselves.
At the Rams Head he opened with “Painting By Numbers,” from his 1989 debut. Even back then McMurtry was deeply cynical about, well, everything:
you might be in grad school
up at M.I.T.
you might be down in the canal zone
being all that you can be
you might get to thinking you’re ahead of the game
but when you break it all down
it all comes out the same
McMurtry’s 18-song set spanned his entire career, presenting powerful song after powerful song. But even against his own best, the five songs from his most recent album, the stunning The Horses and the Hounds, were clear highlights. Aging gracefully — or not — is a key theme of that album. On “It Don’t Bleed, which he introduced as “a happy song, maybe the happiest song I’ve ever written,” he sings:
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 every time
So run another rack
Pour another shot
You don’t get it back so give it all you got
While you still got a more or less functional body and mind.
Many of McMurtry’s best songs have a sharp political edge. ”No More Buffalo,” “Levelland,” “Out Here in the Middle,” and “Choctaw Bingo” all expose deep, and deepening, fault lines in our society. His songwriting has a feeling of reportage, bringing dispatches from parts of America that we might prefer not to examine closely.
McMurtry’s cynical gaze does not miss much. His takes on religion are particularly withering, such as this from 2015’s “Cooper Canteen:”
So if Monsignor should pull you aside as you’re leaving the church
And I’m out on the ice, dropping lines for the walleye and perch
Tell him it’s not your job to bring me to the fold
And I’d rather stand out in the cold
Or this from “It Don’t Bleed,”
But I wouldn’t get down on my knees on a betI’m near enough to Jesus as I ever want to get Seeking salvation isn’t part of my general plan
I said that McMurtry is not really a performer, and that’s true. But he is a compelling singer and an effective guitarist. His voice — both his literary style and his singing style — is distinctive. He sounds like no one else and he has sees the world like no one else. Perhaps that’s why although other songwriters often cite him as a master, his songs are rarely covered by other artists.
Fellow songwriter Steve Earle once said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt drank himself to death at 52; Dylan has spent much of the past ten years revisiting the great American songbook. McMurtry, on the other hand, just keeps getting better. He very well might be the new “best songwriter in the whole world.”
Pete Best, a Baltimore native now living and working in Nashville, opened the show with a tight and entertaining 9-song set. He offered up knowing lyrics (“you can’t untie one on”), catchy melodies, and a winning performance style. https://petebestcountry.com/