James McMurtry melds literature and lyrics

CHARACTER-DRIVEN: Singer-songwriter James McMurtry now embraces those who describe his music as literary. The son of novelist Larry McMurtry, he once scoffed at the label, but says, “I’ve always written my songs around characters.”
CHARACTER-DRIVEN: Singer-songwriter James McMurtry now embraces those who describe his music as literary. The son of novelist Larry McMurtry, he once scoffed at the label, but says, “I’ve always written my songs around characters.”
(Ann Woodall)
Special to The Times

For a long time, James McMurtry was skeptical of the whole notion that songs could be described as literary. He figured it was just a label that journalists stuck on him because his father was the novelist Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show.” But when the younger McMurtry heard his fellow Texan Steve Earle describe songs as “literature you can digest while driving,” it made sense. It also allowed him to think of his own writing as a job not unlike his dad’s.

When James McMurtry comes to the Troubadour Tuesday, he will be emphasizing material from his new album, “Just Us Kids” (Lightning Rod), which could justifiably be described as the best collection of literary songs in several years. But it’s not someone warbling earnest confessions over the lilting strum of an acoustic guitar. It’s someone deadpanning unvarnished stories over the crackling boogie of an electric-guitar trio.

When McMurtry, dark corkscrews of hair spilling out of his black fedora, performed at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Conference in March, he sounded a lot more like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Blasters than Paul Simon or John Darnielle.

“I won’t pay to see a show that doesn’t have a groove to it, so why would I put one out there?” he asked as he nursed a Guinness. “For a long time, when I was touring solo, I got put in that box, that solo-folk-singer-songwriter box. And when you get put in that box, it’s hard to get out, even when you form a band. But I needed to get out -- not just to reach a wider audience but also because it’s just more fun playing with a band.”

The new album’s literary qualities -- visual description, sharp dialogue and character detail -- are obvious on the title track. A 15-year-old kid sits in a park “ ‘neath the vapor light,” telling his pals that he’s going to drop out of school, take the money from his swimming pool job and head for California. But it takes only a stanza for his friends to point out to this would-be rebel that he doesn’t have a car and is no more likely to impress the girls in California than those at home.

These are neither the heroic teenagers nor the hapless victims of rock mythology; these are just a bunch of kids “not even bothering anyone.”

“I’ve always written my songs around characters,” McMurtry added, “because if you’re only writing from your own point of view, you’re not going to have a lot to write about unless you’re a serious egomaniac. And if the characters don’t have flaws, people won’t be interested in them. I wouldn’t be. We’re all flawed. I certainly am.”

During his years of solo touring, McMurtry developed unusual guitar tunings with open strings to bolster his sound. In his current trio, which includes bassist Ronnie Johnson and drummer Daren Hess, he uses those tunings to create vamps that resolve in the bass but not the guitar, keeping the listener eager for the next stanza that might possibly bring the delayed resolution. This musical suspense allows the songwriter to add verse after verse until the characters are fully fleshed out.

“The whole notion that pop songs can only be three or four minutes long comes from radio, where everyone thinks in 30-second segments,” he said. “But a long song can be as effective as a short one. Look at ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ which is like a week long.”

McMurtry got a lot of attention when his scathing indictment of the Bush administration, the seven-minute “We Can’t Make It Here,” was voted the Americana Music Assn.'s song of the year in 2006. “Childish Things,” the 2005 CD that contained the song, was voted album of the year.

“Cheney’s Toy,” the first single from “Just Us Kids,” is a similar musical attack on the president, but the new disc’s key song is the 6 1/2 -minute “Ruby and Carlos.” It’s named after two of the songwriter’s most memorable characters, a Wyoming female veterinarian and a Gulf War veteran playing drums in a touring country band. Pulled apart by jobs, war trauma, age and geography, the ex-lovers think of each other when they can’t sleep at night -- which is all too often.

The song was sparked by an incident when McMurtry’s trio realized that the Waffle House waitresses in the North could understand their central Texas accents but the ones in the South couldn’t. Tim Holt, the band’s soundman, made a crack about crossing “that Mason-Dumb-Ass Line,” and McMurtry knew the comment would make a perfect lyric.

“I needed somebody to say that line who didn’t like the South to someone who was going there,” McMurtry said. “So I made Carlos a drummer who wants to go to Nashville and Ruby a horse woman in the Tetons who wants to stay there. All my songs start with a couple of lines and a melody, and you have to figure out what caused the characters to say that. You figure it out one line at a time.

“For a long time, I thought Carlos was just a drummer, but then I figured out he’d been in the war,” McMurtry continued. “It allowed me to write about the first Gulf War, the forgotten war, the Korean War of our times. When a song has all these moving pieces, it starts getting interesting.”