The easiest way to explain it is that James McMurtry and Townes Van Zandt exist along a ten beer continuum. McMurtry plays to that fourth beer, right before you decide to have six more, where you’re sitting down and sadness somehow feels like the world’s only honest emotion. Van Zandt plays to beer number ten, where pharmacy vodka with a wolf on the label is in the cards and tomorrow doesn’t even exist because the sun’s down. Just because it came up every other day of your life doesn’t mean it has to come back tomorrow.
Point is, I can only listen to Townes Van Zandt two or three times a year. The man’s music should come with a warning label in Helvetica Bold that takes up half the cover art, like they do with European cigarettes. James McMurtry is in the same tradition, but he opens the blinds in the morning. I can listen to him. And that’s how I recommend him to people.
I wind up doing this a lot because he remains largely under-the-radar. Maybe it’s because he’s an “Americana” songwriter, which files him uncomfortably alongside alt-country and therefore, you know, Wilco. Maybe it’s because he flirted with being labeled a political songwriter after the release of “We Can’t Make It Here,” which became a worthy anti-Bush anthem while misrepresenting his talents. Or maybe it’s because it’s hard to sell anybody on a road-hardened singer/songwriter with a guitar who writes some of the most depressing songs in the world.
But I’ll try anyway, because I think he’s one of the best writers working today. This is not a novel opinion, but it usually travels in different circles than mine, so it’s worth repeating here. He writes songs that are best heard in bars on the outskirts of pit stop towns, where your head is one town over and you can’t imagine carrying on a conversation. Songs for when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the next human being is represented strictly by headlights coming up from the horizon. Weary songs for weary people.
His specialty is character studies, packed with journalistic detail of the sort that puts you across the street from a character – just far enough away for your intuition to shade in what you can’t exactly see. They’re like novels stripped down to just the lines you remember, with the delivery and music filling in the blank spaces. They would function perfectly well as prose, but they’re better as songs.
He has a new album out today, Complicated Game, but I don’t believe in reviewing it, since that work has already been done just fine. I largely see it as a new collection of James McMurtry stories, and so much as mentioning new production tricks feels like giving away a plot point. As with most of his albums, it contains some of his best work, and quantifying that, or clumsily ranking that, is a fool’s errand.
Instead, I’ll pursue another fool’s errand: converting the unconverted. So here are my ten favorite James McMurtry songs, which should provide a solid entry to his work. They are ranked in order from “good, you’re still reading” to “basically, you should go see him live.” (There are YouTube videos for a few obvious ones, but you’ll have to seek out the rest because I don’t believe in posting videos with slideshows featuring “random Google Image pictures that seemed thematically appropriate if you squint real hard.”)
1. “Levelland,” from Where’d You Hide the Body?
This is maybe the best modern anthem for rural people who want to escape the void but don’t have much chance at succeeding. That sounds like Bruce Springsteen, I know, but Bruce Springsteen’s anthems all feel like they should soundtrack the scene where the quarterback’s truck breaks down and finally starts back up again in an inspirational sports movie shot entirely at magic hour. McMurtry never hits such easy notes. The sun’s already down for McMurtry.
2. “Choctaw Bingo,” from Live in Aught-Three
It’s easy to mislead people into the belief that McMurtry is completely joyless. This song, one of the greatest “I’m doing 90 miles an hour until I see a Chevron station” road songs ever written, is a thunderous epic about meth, incest, and all-purpose hedonism. It’s packed with amoral wit, like if Warren Zevon turned “Play It All Night Long” into an 8-minute party number.
I posted a live version because this song feeds off crowd energy. You need to feel like you’re in the room with the band. There’s probably a studio version, but I haven’t heard it in years. I don’t particularly enjoy knowing it exists.
3. “Lights of Cheyenne,” from Live in Aught-Three
I can’t hardly say anything about this song except that I first heard it 15 miles outside Bakersfield at 2 in the morning and had to pull over to smoke, and felt like I was the only person alive for two days. He sounds as exhausted as the characters he’s singing about, and has a precision grasp of where to understate his singing for emotional impact. This is McMurtry’s “Waiting Around To Die.”
4. “Rachel’s Song,” from Where’d You Hide the Body?
Contains one of the most gut-wrenching lyrics ever put to paper: “Well, I wrecked the El Camino, would have been DWI, so I just walked off and left it laying on its side. The troopers found it in the morning, and they said it’s purely luck I wasn’t killed; I probably ought to quit my drinking, but I don’t believe I will.” Jason Isbell called it perfect, which is the right word for it.
5. “Just Us Kids,” from Just Us Kids
The kind of characters McMurtry knows best: ragged old burnouts realizing their lives happened while they weren’t looking. Beautifully arranged, with keyboards by frequent collaborator Ian McLagan, who always knew how to make the words sound better and the song sound bigger.
6. “Where’d You Hide the Body?” from Where’d You Hide the Body?
This is the song that introduced me to him. I don’t know enough about production to explain why, but the answer’s in there someplace. The harmonies are mixed perfectly, and it’s the exact correct amount of jangly. A bleak examination of guilt that still manages to be melodically interesting.
7. “Hurricane Party,” from Childish Things
One of the most miraculous songs ever written: it’s about Hurricane Katrina but somehow doesn’t belabor the point or come off disingenuous.
8. “No More Buffalo,” from It Had to Happen
Just because he’s a singer who can say “you could joust at windmills with that old Fender guitar” and make it work and sound as sad and on-point as the song needs it to be. Nobody in heartland rock can pull that off. If Tom Petty sang it, he’d get that “I’m gonna do the chorus now” smile on his face, and Springsteen would just say it too loud. McMurtry can say a Don Quixote metaphor and make it clear he’s qualified to do so.
9. “Restless,” from Live in Europe
A live staple and a stone-cold classic road song (ideally in the southwest someplace). One of those songs where the studio version is the rough draft and it got sharpened to perfection through 10 years of touring.
10. “Carlisle’s Haul,” from Complicated Game
A movie in seven minutes and fourteen seconds. A distillation of all the themes McMurtry knows best: blue collar people doing their best, sometimes outside the confines of the law, fully aware that they might be doomed. The last line sums up his writing philosophy as succinctly as anything he’s ever written: “at the end of the rope, there’s a little more rope most times.”