What does it mean to be a truth teller in a time when lies are pervasive? For damn near three decades, Austin-based Americana songwriter James McMurtry has been a master of fact through fiction. His intricately detailed lyrical narratives often share the perspectives of those who are living rough and have been beaten down by society. In today’s society these people sometimes happen to be the same types who voted Donald Trump into office because they felt forgotten or cheated by the political system. More so than perhaps any other artist, James McMurtry has captured the bitter feelings of the flyover states in his music and he’s been doing it long before Donald Trump ever even thought about running for president. And perhaps if more people had tried to understand the kinds of characters portrayed in his songs, there could have been more dialogue and we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today. On July 11, McMurtry and his band the Heartless Bastards took a break from their long-running Wednesday night residency at Austin’s Continental Club and made a stop at Revolution Hall in Portland, OR.
Sporting a fresh shave and a get-up that looked more suited for vacation than the stage, McMurtry offered just the slightest hint of a smile as he greeted the crowd and jumped into the rambling bluesy rocker “Bayou Tortous”. He stayed in the blues groove but added in his own guitar flourishes “Red Dress”. Other songs like “What’s a Matter Now?”, “Just Us Kids”, and “Ain’t Got a Place” dabbled in bittersweet nostalgia complemented by McMurtry’s loose and airy guitar playing, while the almost-rapped vocals of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” chugged along at breakneck speed. Calling it “not exactly high art” in his deadpan fashion, McMurtry got the entire venue out of their seats and dancing to his best known song, “Choctaw Bingo”, a sprawling, fast-paced story about a family meth ring with an incessant groove that makes ideal to dance along with. With the help of his band – which included roadie and manager Tim Holt shredding electric guitar for most of the show – the Texas troubadour rocked and rolled for nearly two solid hours.
Throughout all of the songs McMurtry performed, his broke down and beaten characters were front and center. By the time he got to the twangy anthem “Levelland”, McMurtry had brought the crowd into the world of his songs. Though this song and “Too Long in the Wasteland” featured some of the finest jamming of the night, it was still about the lyrics. As with all of his songs, McMurtry looks at his characters in a way that is both critical of society yet understanding of their plight. In Portland on Wednesday, he reminded us that in a time of divisiveness and lies, the best way to connect with those you don’t agree with is to try and understand their stories.
Photos by Greg Homolka.