James McMurtry spins stories with a poet's pen (“Long Island Shores”) and a painter's precision (“She Loves Me”). Proof: The acclaimed songwriter's new Complicated Game. McMurtry's first collection in six years spotlights a craftsman in peak form (“She Loves Me,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It's also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman. I never make a conscious decision about what to write about. We built everything as we went.”
Complicated Game delivers McMurtry's trademark story songs time and again (“Copper Canteen,” “Deaver's Crossing”). In fact, the longtime Austin resident might be our finest narrative storyteller working today. Cue the album's lead single “How'm I Gonna Find You Now” for evidence. “James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he's working at the top of his game,” Jason Isbell tells us. “James has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don't think anybody writes better lyrics.”
Here we revisit Complicated Game with McMurtry as fans look forward to his highly anticipated New West Records debut in 2020.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
James McMurtry: [Producer] C.C. Adcock and I got drunk somewhere and decided to make a record. Over the course of the next year I managed to get some songs written. Over the course of the next year we got the record made.
Tell the story behind writing 'Copper Canteen.'
I was driving around up in the Great Lakes country where they have draw bridges and it just kind of came together. My friend Pat MacDonald, who was in Timbuk 3 years ago, does a festival every year up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin called the Steel Bridge [Songfest], and there's an old steel bridge there that got stuck at half mast. So, I went to play this festival and that was the first time I'd heard the term “bridge tender,” the guy that makes the bridge go up and down when boats come through.
Describe how these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter.
I don't know that I have evolved as a songwriter. That's pretty much what I've been doing for a long time. I may be a little more melodic and I have gotten better as a singer.
Have you taken voice lessons?
Yeah, I've taken some voice lessons and I've just done a whole lot of singing over the years. It changes your writing style a bit because you write for notes you couldn't have hit 10 years ago.
Tell the story behind writing 'Deaver's Crossing.'
I grew up in Northern Virginia. My stepdad used to take me trout fishing in the Shenandoah National Park, which I found out many years later was actually made by Eminent Domain. They took land away from all the farmers and moonshiners up on the ridge and let the woods come back and turned it into a park. Where we used to go into the park to fish, there was a farm owned some people named Deaver. The song's a fictionalized account. I don't know if the old man was in a wreck, it just worked.
Describe working with [McMurtry's songwriter son] Curtis, who sings harmonies.
He's worked several of my records. He played bari sax on my two previous studio records. He's much more of a perfectionist than I am in the studio. He knows what he wants. If he goes in to lay down a sax part, he'll argue with me. Eventually, he'll get what he's after and I'll think, Okay, he's right. He has a music comp degree and he knows what he's doing.
Describe Curtis' best quality as a songwriter.
Feel. His songs are very well structured. The choruses lift without you having to do anything to them. He gets points across. He's a pretty intricate lyricist, too. He's one of the better songwriters I know.
Explain how 'What's the Matta Now' came to you and why it didn't make the record.
I wrote that from years of being on the van listening to guys being on cell phones trying to explain things to their wives or holding the phone out getting yelled at. Some of the wives didn't care for that, but it's not on the record because we screwed it. I hope it makes a future record. After I started playing that live, I told my ex-wife that she could write the girl version and she'd probably make more money than I will sort of the Kitty Wells did with Ray Price and “Honky Tonk Angels.”
You're listed playing Nashville guitar on some songs. Explain what that is.
Nashville tuning is just putting the high strings where the low strings used to be. So, you have high strings all the way across. For some reason, they put a really skinny string on the G, so it's like a .9-gauge or something. It gives you these funny voicings with a lot of sparkle. There's no low end to speak of. There's a solo on “South Dakota” with the Nashville guitar that's pretty distinct.
Maybe my favorite that did make the record is 'South Dakota.'
My dad [author Larry McMurtry] called in October of 2013 and he said, “Did you hear about the tragedy?” I said, “Which one?” He said, “They had this early blizzard in South Dakota. Killed millions of cows.” I thought, That's strange. My father hates cows. He absolutely despises the bovine animal because he grew up ranching and cows mean work to him, but he still has an affinity for the ranching people. I worked the soldier in there. The lead character didn't start out as a soldier, but I go through so many little bitty rural towns on tour and probably half have a welcome home sign for a serviceman.
How did recording in New Orleans generally set the tone for the record?
I don't know because a lot of times I'd go in for a week and then have to go back out on the road. I can't stop for six weeks and make a record like we used to. I get off the road and I start getting broke pretty fast. So, I'd go away with the band and C.C. and [co-producer] Mike Napolitano would be here listening to the tracks. They'd say, “Let's call Ivan Neville to come sing on that one.” They can do that in New Orleans. I guess one day [keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers] Benmont Tench was in town and they got him for some things.
Were you there for Benmont's sessions?
I was not there for Benmont. I was there for Ivan's vocal session on “You Got to Me.” That was amazing. Background vocal sessions can be painful, trying to get a singer to match your phrasing and hit the notes on a song they may or may not know. That can take all day. Took Ivan an hour. Maybe. He would push himself well past what we needed. We'd go in and say, “Sounds like you nailed it.” He'd say, “Let me do it again.”
– Brian T. Atkinson
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