When a friend asked if I wanted to hear James
McMurtry perform at Shank Hall in
Milwaukee last week, I figured what the heck. Being quite snug in my usual
musical orbit of jazz/blues/R&B/classical, I thought the change would do me
good, broaden my horizons a bit. It did.
Because James is the son of the famous Texas
novelist Larry McMurtry and I knew nothing about him, I wondered whether he
would be some average musical talent riding on daddy’s coattails. He’s nothing
of the sort. He is a seriously good songwriter and a smoking-good acoustical
guitarist. (That’s him at left.) Stephen King has called him “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” And, while James' Dylanesque voice is the weakest
part of his act, he makes it work, turns it into a style that serves his tunes
well. Don’t know why, but the voice sounds better in person than it does on
It was just James and his guitars, which
included a rich 12-string, and it was a big sound, full of passion and rhythm.
He paints word pictures in his songs just like his daddy does in novels. My
friend, born and raised near the Kansas flatlands, has loved Jame McMurtry’s
music for years because it speaks to him about the kinds of characters and
landscape and incidents he grew up with. Here’s a little flavor of James’
lyrics, from the tune “Lights of Cheyenne”:
off down the highway
on up from the plains
bunched up like pearls on a string
guess time don't mean nothin'
nothin' at all
out on the horizon
broken stars fall
broken stars they
down on the land
get mixed together
with the lights of Cheyenne
James seems offbeat and terse like his father (at least as dad comes across in newspaper articles). My guess, though, is that if you approached him with a little caution and courtesy, he might turn out to be pretty friendly (and full of stories).
The day after the concert I looked up some interviews to learn more about him and wound up finding a new book to read. Interviewer William Michael Smith, for the Houston Press, asked James about his favorite Larry McMurtry novel. “Cheyenne is certainly a standout in his early work, but Duane's Depressed is still the one for me,” he said. “It's just about perfect. Dad said he knew right from the start that one was just going to work. He said it was like knowing you were going to hit a home run before you'd even stepped in the batter's box.”
I ran out and got Duane’s Depressed from the library and am now nearly done with it. It’s very enjoyable, both poignant and funny.
-- Ron Kovach, senior editor, The Writer