James McMurtry at City Winery, NY

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Photos by Mike Cobb

Americana singer-songwriter James McMurtry performed at City Winery, accompanied only by two guitars: a six and twelve string. James uses a variety of open tunings that provide lower bass frequencies and open drone notes resulting in a full, rich sound, useful for solo performances. If he seems somewhat dour on record, he is actually quite funny live in his audience banter.

About “I Ain’t Got A Place,” off of his last release Complicated Game, he said, “I wrote this song in New Orleans when I was drunk and pissed off, which is either a recipe for writing something good or getting your ass kicked. I got lucky.”

A true Texan, James knows how to spin a yarn. His buildup often foreshadows his lyrics, as was the case with “Choctaw Bingo” an epic tune full of rich character detail. “My great grandfather was a Methodist, which is why my father was an atheist. But we need Methodists; this song goes out to all the ‘Crystal Methodists’.”

Fans know McMurtry’s band rocks with sonics akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. But seeing him solo allows the listener to focus on fantastic lines like, “I bought a whiskey for the gypsy, and she turned my leather back to skin” from “Hurricane Party.”

McMurtry got big applause and had the audience singing on “These Are The Best Days” which is full of New York imagery. “Here’s to all you strangers, The Mets and the Rangers, Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound” while “How’m I Gonna Find You Now?” was astounding for its Dylanesque flow.

Though his stories are many and vary in detail, much of McMurtry’s work deals with the existential struggles of ordinary people facing increasing hardships. At times his characters stand alone in the spiritual wasteland of America. In “Lights of Cheyenne” he sings “You stand in the sky with your feet on the ground, never suspectin’ a thing. But if the sky were to move, you might never be found, never be heard from again.”

About that tune James said, “Out west everything’s bigger. You can plant your feet in the sagebrush, while the rest of your body seems suspended in sky. If gravity were to change, you could drift away, forgotten.”

James McMurtry expertly crafts songs that explore the depths of the American soul. Count yourself lucky if you catch him live; he’s a true treasure.

—Mike Cobb

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