Artist: James McMurtry
Album: Complicated Game
Label: Complicated Game
Release Date: 02/24/2015
From the opening line, “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun,” James McMurtry gains your attention immediately. His songwriting legacy is incomparable in terms of narrative stories and character portraits. This, his first record in six years, proves that his writing might now be even more incisive. He abandons the political; instead, he focuses on, as he describes it, “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships. It’s also a little about the big old world versus the poor little farmer or fisherman.” Several of these tunes like “Copper Canteen,” Carlisle’s Haul,” and “South Dakota” can stand right aside gems like “Ruby and Carlos” and “The Lights of Cheyenne.” The rap-like delivery and driving energy of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” may evoke comparisons to “Chocktaw Bingo.”
Renowned zydeco and blues producer C.C. Adcock gives McMurtry a new, diverse sound filled with banjos, dobros, and keyboards. Don’t look for the blazing rock n’ roll electric guitar that colors McMurtry’s previous work. Here, James just plays acoustically amidst the company of Benmont Tench , Derek Trucks and other guests. Irish instruments like Uilleann pipes provide the perfect backdrop for his tale about the relocated white collar exec, “Long Island Sound.” Premiere banjo players like Dirk Powell, Danny Barnes and James’ son, Curtis, play on various tracks.
As with any McMurtry effort though, it’s the lyrics that are the focal point. Take this passage from “South Dakota,” describing a disillusioned vet –“Because there ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota/And barbed wire won’t stop the wind/ You won’t get nothing here but broke and older/ If I was you I might re-up again.” We could point to examples of his poetic prowess in every song. Listening to McMurtry is akin to reading a really descriptive novelist like James Lee Burke. His characters are not as inherently evil but his images are just as vivid, precise, and enduring. His last two albums, Childish Things, and Just Us Kids had some excellent moments. This is his most complete work, and arguably his career best.
– Jim Hynes