James McMurtry at Birchmere with BettySoo
Toward the end of James McMurtry’s sold-out solo acoustic show at The Birchmere, the songwriter decided to perform what he described as a “happy song.”
“It does maintain a certain amount of cynicism that McMurtry songs require, but nobody dies in it, so it’s a happy song,” he said before playing “If It Don’t Bleed,” the lead single off of his acclaimed 2021 album, The Horses and the Hounds.
He then told the story about the song’s origins. A cousin who had faced down cocaine addiction had no tolerance for complaining about life’s inanities. “One day I was bitching to him about something, and he said, ‘If it don’t bleed. It don’t matter.’ I wrote that down.”
McMurtry sprinkled in these darkly humorous anecdotes throughout Thursday’s 90-minute show, which also featured a lovely opening set by the Austin-based BettySoo.
“What’s with the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ license plates?” he asked of the yellow tags that adorn many cars in Virginia. “Coming up from North Carolina I kept getting passed by these $100,000 four-wheelers with the big tires and those license plates. And the four wheelers don’t look like they have much wear on them.”
That sardonic comment, coming after McMurtry performed “Red Dress” and just before “Copper Canteen,” played well with the loyal crowd at the Alexandria, Va., venue. And McMurtry treated the audience to a set that included songs from the majority of his 10 albums, starting with “Painting by Numbers” from his 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland and several tracks from his most recent album.
“St. Mary of the Woods” and “Red Dress,” a song McMurtry has performed before in drag in states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, were early highlights, followed by the one-two punch of “El Camino” and “Rachel’s Song.”
Midway through the show, McMurtry introduced “Choctaw Bingo” with the quip, “As Townes Van Zandt used to say when he performed ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ I want to do a medley of my hit.” He then proceeded to do the eight-plus minute song, showcasing his multitude of skills on the acoustic instrument he played.
McMurtry is one of the few performers whose music shines regardless of whether he is playing solo or with his full band. That’s a testament to the full sound he gets out of a single acoustic guitar; you have to see and hear it to believe it.
The longest introduction was for the standout “Levelland,” a song McMurtry wrote almost 30 years ago as a tribute to Texas novelist Max Crawford, a family friend. Crawford, who died in 2010 was a contemporary of McMurtry’s father, Larry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who died in 2021.
“Max was from Flodata, Texas, but Flodata didn’t fit the meter, so I changed it to Levelland,” McMurtry said of the song, which talks of a small town parade where the marching band is doing the best it can to play “Smoke on the Water” and “Joy to the World,” which was written by Hoyt Axton and made famous by Three Dog Night.
“If you think you’re an artist and you think you’re profound,” McMurtry said, “think of the line ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ … He managed to change the world and gave it just a little bit of joy.”
Before closing his show, McMurtry described touring in Western Canada and passing a field with strange plants that “looked like tumbleweeds lined up in rows.”
“Being Americans we didn’t stop to ask what they were,” he said, noting he finally saw a beat-up sign advertising the sale of canola plants, which are used in cooking oil. That gave him the inspiration to finish a song, “Canola Fields,” that opens The Horses and the Hounds.
“Sometimes it’s a detail. Sometimes it’s a rhyme,” he said of his songwriting process. “Rarely it has much to do with reality … Reality is kind of optional in this trade.”
Fiction or not, the crowd enjoys seeing McMurtry and hearing his characters, even when he decides its necessary to sing the occasional “happy song.” Find his tour dates and more information here: https://www.jamesmcmurtry.com
McMurtry has found a great complimentary opener in BettySoo, who has a beautiful voice, strong songwriting, and a shared sense of humor and restlessness. Soo’s 45-minute opening set included tracks from her solo work and her time with Nobody’s Girl, a trio of Austin musicians whose album fell victim to pandemic-related timing.
Soo spoke to the realities of being a touring musician in a world where it is increasingly difficult to be noticed, no matter how much talent one has. She handprints the T-shirts and totebags she sells at shows in her living room and often works the merch table after her opening set.
“Someone asked me, ‘Why does James have this much merch, and you have this much merch?’” she said, opening her arms twice as wide to describe what she had for sale. “I said, ‘He makes his money by playing in here and I make mine selling it out there.’”
Soo was outstanding on several tracks, including “Don’t Say It’s Nothing,” a lovely lament mourning the impending end of a relationship; “Waterline,” a Nobody’s Girl song; and the new song “Shadowlands.”
At the start of her set, Soo said, “I get a master class from watching James McMurtry every night. I also get to play for more than 12 people.” And she took a moment to praise McMurtry again at the end of the set, saying it is an honor to know “someone I hold in that high of regard who thinks I have so much worth sharing.”
“You do,” an audience member said as the rest of the crowd applauded. Find more of her information here: https://bettysoo.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Interview: James McMurtry on the State of the Union, Songwriting Process, Fishing, and Recent Tour with Jason Isbell