The Birchmere hosts a diverse array of artists and shows, and for a listening room that started as a bluegrass club the calendar is broad and deep and wide, genre be damned, as the venue celebrates its 50th year in business. In a city that worships art and history, the Birchmere is the de facto Museum of American Music, Smithsonian take note.
Wednesday James McMurtry presented a masterclass in songwriting, performing solo to a packed house. The audience was dialed in from the outset, cheering enthusiastically for McMurtry’s son, Curtis, who opened with a solid set of original material that showed real promise.
After a short break the elder McMurtry took the stage with three acoustic guitars as his only companions. It turned out that was all he needed to hold the faithful, that and a set list loaded with striking portraits of everyday life. Smirking, McMurtry commented he was grateful the crowd had turned out to hear his “happy” songs.
McMurtry’s oozes world weary, sardonic wit, while his writing reveals a hope that manages to outlast his cynical take on living. In another life McMurtry might be Phillip Marlowe, if the gumshoe picked a guitar and spilled the beans on some of his unsavory clients. McMurtry’s “the hell with you” presence is part of what endears him to his devotees. His tough prose makes no room for navel gazing or whimpering.
Perhaps what McMurtry does best is respect his characters and their predicaments. He doesn’t betray their confidence in his ability to convey their struggles and foibles, their small victories and their tragic defeats. He doesn’t turn them into caricatures for an easy rhyme or a cheap laugh. It is that honest portrayal that burns the songs into the memory of the listener.
One thing that is almost impossible to teach is the art of presentation. McMurtry doesn’t overload or rush the details. He lets them unfold naturally, as they so often do in life. The result is that the tunes work like a screenplay, following a believable arc that leads to a satisfying conclusion for the audience, if not for the character.
McMurtry’s style is entirely American, and his phrasing, in conjunction with his choice of words are what set him apart from so many other roots artists. He is a perfect example of the eloquence of plain speech. Any reader knows that reading a good story is a treat, but when that good story is excellently told it packs an emotional weight that won’t soon be forgotten. And then there is fact that he is a damn fine guitarist.
“Red Dress” was a chance for McMurtry to cast passion against a beautiful performance on 12-string guitar. His fretwork was impressive all night, as he delivered one gem after another, “Levelland,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “No More Buffalo.”
The set list featured at least four songs from the 2014 release Complicated Game. McMurtry introduced “Ain’t Got a Place” saying that he wrote it in a bar. “I was in the right mixture of pissed off and drunkenness and if you get that mixture right you can write a song…but you better write it fast.”
In the end the audience rewarded McMurtry with a standing ovation. To quote the singer, “When they’ve seen your best, they can do without the rest, don’t you know?” www.theflamestillburns.com