A Few, Well-Chosen Words

I remember with uncharacteristic clarity the moment I heard first about James McMurtry. I was futzing around in a newly rented house in Durham, NC in the fall of 1989, listening to All Things Considered tell me that the son of novelist Larry McMurtry was a talented Texas songwriter. Then this world-weary but perceptive voice sang the lines “Hear the trucks on the highway / And the ticking of the clocks/ There’s a ghost of a moon in the afternoon / Bullet holes in the mailbox.”

Holy mackerel, I thought, I’ve got to hear more of that! So I got me hence to the old record store and bought Too Long In The Wasteland, McMurtry’s debut album. It became a staple. I learned and performed his “Song For A Deckhand’s Daughter” about a n’er-do-well father and the wake of misery he leaves. I played “Poor Lost Soul” endlessly on repeat. I couldn’t get over the layers of detail about modern rural American life. One character is a recidivist perpetrator of Medicare fraud. Who writes about stuff like that? And with such sharply drawn melodies and gnarly guitars? James McMurtry, that’s who. And he’s part of an exciting bill this week at Roots that includes pop/roots heavyweight John Oates and a slate of cool young troubadours from around North America.

When McMurtry released the album Childish Things in 2005 it hit like a thunderclap, winning album and song of the year at the Americana Honors & Awards. That song was “We Can’t Make It Here,” a surly and savage anti-manifesto – an indictment of a system that had done far too little to prevent jobs from migrating overseas and far too much by way of sending poor folks to fight in wars of dubious purpose. One major critic called it the best song of the decade. And yes, McMurtry can do political anger as well as anyone, but it’s ultimately his characters and ordinary situations, extraordinarily told, that have made me a huge fan.

He’s a famously terse individual who saves his public thinking for the few, well-chosen words in his songs. A terrific profile posted recently at No Depression proves that point. It’s like 5,000 words long with scarcely 100 words quoted from McMurtry himself. But we learn about his upbringing in Virginia, shuttling between divorced parents and the gradual discovery of songwriting as a voice. We also learn, according to Mike Seely’s reporting that “as 2014 wanes, McMurtry’s got his 11th album in the can, which, upon its release early next year, will mark his first studio output in seven years. He recorded it in New Orleans with ace zydeco producer C.C. Adcock.” Among its guest musicians are Derek Trucks, Ivan Neville, Danny Barnes and McMurtry’s son Curtis.

So we’ll welcome James to Roots with open arms and for my part, lots of questions.

John Oates makes a much anticipated return this week. It’s been a while since we enjoyed his company and his raspy, soulful voice. He first played the show this time of year in 2010, and back then I asked him about his turn to Americana music and folkie songwriting, and he had this to say: “I grew up on a lot of folk, blues and things like that. And when I met Daryl (Hall) I think he brought a lot of the urban, R&B and doo-wop. And I brought the acoustic side. And we brought those elements together and it evolved into what we ended up doing.”

Yes, that was quite a thing they ended up doing: charting 34 Billboard songs and ending up as the magazine’s top duo in rock history. We at Music City Roots love it when mega-stars turn to deep folk and the pure essence of songcraft. Think of Bruce Springsteen making his amazing Seeger Sessions album a few years ago. Or Steve Martin getting serious about his banjo and bluegrass. Well John has been on a similar journey, and the results, embodied on his recent solo or collaborative albums Mississippi Mile and Good Road To Follow, are emotional, raw and tuneful. To be sure, there’s still some timeless American pop in his unplugged sound, and he’s likely to do a Hall & Oates song or two as well.

Rounding out the bill will be three fascinating younger artists with different takes on country music. Caleb Klauder is a well-rounded traditional musician from the Pacific Northwest whom we last saw on our stage as part of the amazing Foghorn String Band. His namesake band mingles originals with well-chosen classic covers and plays with Hank Williams-like longing and a bluegrass drive. From wide-open Western Canada comes Del Barber, who lives the life of which he sings on his new album Prairieography. Its direct-to-tape authenticity is enhanced by old fashioned analog reverb achieved in a lonesome 150-foot grain silo. So the music has a kind of imprint of place on it.

Del played a showcase at the recent Americana conference as did fellow buzz artist Caroline Rose. I got to see some of her electric power-trio set and it was smart and engaging. She has a lot of attitude and a real touch with a song. From her official bio: “Raised in the Northeast (and currently living in her van), Rose is a rare mix of Northern grit and Southern charm whose musical influences trace back to her family’s Southern roots, running deep into the heart of Mississippi.” So we have many points of the Americana compass covered this week – five artists with only one thing in common and that’s a deep love for and a way with words.

Craig H.

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