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His Songs? Bleak. His Future? Bright.

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

MADISON, Ind. -- Figuring that his well-traveled touring van was past due for an oil change, James McMurtry thought about looking for a Jiffy Lube when he pulled into town for the night's gig. But then he got a better idea. "First order of business, I'm gonna see if they have beer in the Mexican restaurant behind the hotel," he said.

So here is the Texas-born singer-songwriter-guitarist, slumped in a booth at Los Compadres, plucking the jalapeƱos from a plate of nachos in between sips of cheap Mexican beer while a couple nearby bickers about what to watch on television later. The restaurant is tucked behind the Best Western, hard by State Road 62 in an Ohio River Valley town that hasn't quite been the same since the steamboat boom went bust. There's a pickup with an enormous Dale Earnhardt window sticker parked outside. At the next table, a family is making plans to reconvene at the Wal-Mart down the road. Ranchera music blares over the speakers.

McMurtry, a famously caustic observer of Americana, murmurs: "It's pretty bleak."

This is precisely the sort of scene that might show up in a James McMurtry song. When he's not ranting about the screwy state of the union -- something he's been doing with increasing frequency -- McMurtry specializes in trenchant character sketches set in the vast nothingness of rural America.

It's an improbably colorful place as he packs his story-songs with novelistic detail and observations about fascinatingly ordinary people and fantastic fringe characters. It may or may not be a genetic gift: He's the son of the famous writer Larry McMurtry.

His lyrics focus on broken dreams and hard realities. "I tend to look at the dark cloud behind the silver lining," he says. (The songwriter Robert Earl Keen says that when McMurtry sits down to write, it's as if "another tragedy is about to unfold.")

Whatever he is -- bard in a bar band; songwriter's songwriter; hell, writer's writer (Stephen King will talk your ear off about him) -- McMurtry, at 46, has crafted one of the year's best albums in "Just Us Kids," which artfully mixes provocative portraits with political screeds, including the Bush-bashing "Cheney's Toy."

This after 2005's "Childish Things" was named album of the year at the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards. McMurtry's protest anthem, "We Can't Make It Here," was also named song of the year. (McMurtry performs Friday at the Birchmere.)

Critical acclaim is nothing new for the roots-rock artist, whose first album, 1989's "Too Long in the Wasteland," was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the year's best debuts. The album prompted rock critic Robert Christgau to write in the Village Voice that McMurtry is "gonna be a prestige item, just you wait."

After nearly 20 years -- a period during which McMurtry was dropped by Columbia Records on account of low sales, then wandered from independent label to independent label -- the wait appears to be over. Eight albums into his career as a critical darling, his fan base is suddenly swelling.

"We're selling more seats and selling more records now," McMurtry says through clenched teeth, which is how he says pretty much everything (and how he sings, too). Almost indifferently, he adds: "It's energizing."

And then: "It's also an uncomfortable position. We're filling clubs that we used to not fill. But we're still in clubs."

Why is that uncomfortable?

"Because there's more people," McMurtry says, averting his eyes. "I'm not really a people person."

You're a misanthrope?

"I don't know that I'm a misanthrope; I just hate people -- some of the time."

* * *

Funny thing about James McMurtry: He has a masterly command of the English language, but you might not know it from engaging him in conversation -- if you can get him to engage at all. (He is notoriously taciturn around his fans.)

In interviews, he'll talk about himself, about his art, his influences, his politics, his father, his own son's songwriting -- all of it. He'll be thoughtful and revealing. He just won't be loquacious. Don't take it personally. His friends don't.

Every Wednesday, when McMurtry is at home in Austin, he performs a late-night set at the Continental Club. He's almost always preceded onstage by singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham, who once asked McMurtry's girlfriend, "Why doesn't James like me? He's said maybe nine words to me in three years and we play together every week!"

"And she goes: 'Nine? Wow, he really likes you.' "

Graham laughs. "Obviously, this is a man who uses words like a scalpel. He's pretty [expletive] precise; I think he's always looking for the right words. . . . And as a songwriter, I respect and envy the hell out of him.

"He's able to create, whole cloth, out of thin air, things that never happened to people who don't exist, and to make them funny, witty, insightful and a general comment on the world. How do you do that?"

Might help that McMurtry's father is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist ("Lonesome Dove") and Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Brokeback Mountain"). His mother, Josephine, recently retired as an English literature professor at the University of Richmond. But, James says: "I don't know if it has to do with being around them, or what I listened to when I was growing up."

McMurtry was born in Fort Worth, but his parents split when he was still a toddler. They moved to Virginia -- Josephine to Richmond, Larry to Waterford, in Loudoun County. James lived with his father, who taught at George Mason University and American University before buying an antiquarian bookstore in Georgetown; he spent weekends with his mother.

McMurtry attended his first concert at the age of 7: Johnny Cash at the Richmond Coliseum. He decided he wanted to do what Cash did. His father bought him a guitar; his mother taught him three chords. McMurtry says he really started to think about writing songs when he was given a copy of Kris Kristofferson's debut album, "Me & Bobby McGee." After boarding school in southern Virginia, McMurtry enrolled at the University of Arizona in 1980. He sort of studied English. "I think I became a sophomore after four years. I was more interested in playing the guitar than learning. I kind of regret that now."

He bailed on college and landed back in Texas, working as a house painter and bartender. A few years later, Larry McMurtry was working on a film project with John Mellencamp and passed along a cassette containing some of his son's songs. Impressed, Mellencamp helped McMurtry land a deal with Columbia and produced his 1989 debut.

"I didn't even know it was possible," McMurtry says of a career in music.

Then came the early acclaim, a series of business-side disappointments and, now, the recognition that seems to have been sparked by the scathing "We Can't Make It Here," posted online shortly before the 2004 presidential election. In his influential Entertainment Weekly column, Stephen King called McMurtry's first foray into political songwriting the best American protest song since Bob Dylan's epochal "Masters of War."

King, who owns a rock radio station in Maine, put "We Can't Make It Here" in heavy rotation, right alongside 2002's "Choctaw Bingo," a freewheeling, nine-minute vignette that McMurtry describes as "a song about the North Texas-Southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry."

"He excites me in a way that very few artists do, both on an emotional level, because I love music, and on an intellectual level, because I love poetry and story," King says from his office in Maine. "The clarity, the details, the feeling that these are real people -- or could be real people -- it's terrific."

King's support, McMurtry says, "couldn't have come at a better time for us; we were kind of slipping off the edge." Now, he's become a star -- albeit in the relatively limited world of Americana music. He's one of the three most requested artists on XM Radio's X Country channel. "James is really fine-tuning his craft, and I think his lyric writing is becoming even more evocative," says X Country program director Jessie Scott. "It was great early on, but it was more like shorthand. It's much more fleshed out now, especially his characters."

Larry McMurtry has watched and listened with pride. He has immersed himself in his son's music and has come to a surprising conclusion: "James's best songs are so good that I don't think that my best novels really come up to them."

How's that again?

"One element of music is poetry, and poetry is a lot harder than fiction," the father says from Arizona. "A lyric is the hardest form. You have to concentrate and squeeze those words. I respect James a lot for having found his own art and done it so well."

* * *

McMurtry is in Madison to headline the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival. He's grousing that he and his rhythm section, known as the Heartless Bastards, will have to perform without a sound check. He's unsure how to winnow the set list. His body language is crooked.

But later, when he begins to perform, it's as if the clouds have been lifted. Partially, anyway.

"I'm a Labrador retriever when it comes to performing: I've got my tongue out, I'm smiling, I want to be petted," says Robert Earl Keen, who has covered some of McMurtry's songs and considers him a friend. "James could give a [expletive]. He's all about standing onstage, doing those songs.

"He's like the Daniel Plainview of musicians. 'I hate most people!' [Laughs.] But people who like James, they love James. They don't care how he is onstage."

McMurtry's set here begins with "Bayou Tortous," the swamp-rock song that opens "Just Us Kids." "Just another night for the missus and me/Sitting on the couch watching Court TV," he speak-sings in that sardonic, bone-dry, low-boil voice of his.

Performing the album's title track, McMurtry, a terrifically understated guitarist, sings cuttingly of graying rebels and midlife crises. In the new "Hurricane Party," the theme is isolation. "Ruby and Carlos" is a sharp, sardonic story about a slowly eroding relationship.

McMurtry swears he's not a dire pessimist: "I try to hold out hope; you can't live without it," he says offstage. But "I don't know that I would call any of my stuff optimistic. I haven't gotten to that yet in a song."

The highlight of the performance is the back-to-back of "Choctaw Bingo" and "We Can't Make It," whose lyric about "stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store/Just like the ones we made before/Except this one came from Singapore" earns a particularly loud roar of approval.

While McMurtry hasn't actually transformed himself into a full-time protest singer, he has earned more new fans than he's lost by flying his left-leaning flag.

"Our job is to be remembered, not loved," he says. "Your job is to make an impact. And if they hate you, they'll remember you, too."

He takes a swig of beer, then says: "You can like the art without liking the artist. You can."

James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards perform with Justin Townes Earle at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Friday.

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