In an industry that categorizes, compares and defines everything, James McMurtry and his music defy description. McMurtry based in Austin, Texas began playing brilliant “Americana” music two decades before either the sound or the town became all the rage. To his credit McMurtry has been immune to criticisms such as being too acoustic but not folky enough or too rock and roll to be country. His live performances draw from the ten critically acclaimed albums he has released over the past twenty years.
As such the Narrows Center for the Arts, a converted mill space, church pew seating was filled to capacity in anticipation of the singer-songwriter’s solo performance. Dressed in jeans and short sleeve button down, his wild hair corralled by his ever-present fedora-style hat McMurtry opened on twelve string acoustic with the somber “Down Along the Delaware.” The stage was bare apart from his amplifier which doubled as a table for a water bottle and glass of red wine. The set’s slow burn start continued with “Red Dress” featuring the lyric, “Yes I’m drunk but damn your ugly/Tell you one thing yes I will/Tomorrow morning I’ll be sober/You’ll be just as ugly still.”
Looking and sounding relaxed the set list was divided by stories and political commentary all told with McMurtry’s dry wit.
“Rachel’s Song” the lament of a jilted, single father highlighted his guitar abilities. Despite seeing a single guitar player; three distinct guitar parts were audible.
“Hurricane Party” and “Ruby and Carlos” exemplify McMurty’s narrative style of song writing. Whether it be hard times or lost love his baritone-ish delivery is always convincing. About half way through the show both the artist and audience simultaneously settled into their Friday night with the rocking, toe tappin’, opus “Choctaw Bingo.” The twenty-minute plus number recounts a Southern family reunion which takes place at the “Crystal Meth-odists” Uncle Slayton’s. McMurtry highlighted the lyrics with comments on the Southerner’s way of life with a particular focus on being Baptist as opposed to Methodist.
A “medley of his hit” followed, the sixties styled, protest song “We Can’t Make it Here Any More,” which he introduced with an anecdote about “Occupy Anchorage.” “It didn’t take that many protesters,” he stated. Robert Earl Keene’s country hit, “Levelland” followed. An inside joke as McMurtry actually wrote the song.
McMurtry switched back to six string closing with two deep cuts; the deep groove of “Restless” from “Childish Things”. The lasting refrain of “I can’t grow up/’cause I’m too old old now” from “Peter Pan” left the partisan audience standing.