There's a one-liner that Americana singer-songwriter James McMurtry is fond of delivering onstage — at the core, musicians are really just glorified beer salesmen.
"We're basically the service industry. We're symbiotically tied to the club business. Beer sales and tips, you know?" McMurtry tells Rolling Stone Country. "I've seen a lot of young bands that think they're artists and they're not there to sell beer, but we want to keep the club happy, because if the club goes under we don't have a gig."
It's a cynical observation, which, for the acerbic McMurtry, is in keeping with his character. But it is also a show of solidarity with the hard-working class, be they songwriters and bartenders or the ranchers, fishermen and farmers whose struggles he sings about on his superb new album, Complicated Game. His first studio project in six years, the record will be released February 24th but is now streaming in its entirety on Rolling Stone Country. (Listen to the album below.)
Working for the first time with producer C.C. Adcock, along with producer Mike Napolitano, McMurtry sounds reenergized on the follow-up to 2008's Just Us Kids. But the Virginia-raised lyricist, who makes his home in Austin, grumbles a laugh when it's suggested he might even sound happy.
"I worked a little harder on the vocals than I usually do. C.C. brought in a vocal coach from Long Island, who taught me a trick or two, so no doubt it helped," he says. "I don't know if it has to do with happiness or just application."
In fact, it's McMurtry's anger that has actually brought him his greatest success. Pissed off at the direction the country was headed under the George W. Bush administration, he wrote the biting "We Can't Make It Here," a protest song that documented, among other ills, the exportation of American jobs. It was named Song of the Year at the 2006 Americana Music Awards.
He got even more political with the driving Just Us Kids track "Cheney's Toy," a bleak dissertation on the Iraq War that he has since come to reconsider releasing. "'Cheney's Toy' was kind of a mistake. I like the song, but it shouldn't have been a single. What makes a popular song is the listener being able to hear the narrator in himself. With 'We Can't Make It Here,' we found a character that struck a chord in a lot of people. With 'Cheney's Toy,' it's just McMurtry ranting," he says. He was also discouraged by the way some listeners interpreted the lyrics. "People thought that I was saying that the soldiers were Cheney's toys — I was saying Bush was Cheney's toy. There were clues like Cheney saying, 'You're the man,' to Bush to pump up his ego, so he'd go out and sell his politics, which I read in the New York Times. Not everybody reads the New York Times it turns out."
While McMurtry weaves social commentary throughout the dozen tracks on Complicated Game, he is more focused on presenting vignettes about the common man, some of which come from his own experiences, and some that he's pieced together from things he's read or observed. Like his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, "I'm a fiction writer," he says.
One rooted in factual detail, however. The Complicated Game standout "Carlisle's Haul" is so rich with the imagery and jargon of the Maryland and Virginia small-time fishing industry that you can't help but wonder if McMurtry was himself a fisherman. He tosses out words like "seine," "donkey motor" and "punt boat" as if he's worked the nets all his life. But McMurtry attests he was only around that culture once, as a teenager in the Seventies.
"A friend of mine had a summer house down by the mouth of the Potomac where it runs into the Chesapeake Bay. We learned that somebody was running a seine off the point and we wanted to see what it was all about," McMurtry recalls of the dragnet-fishing operation. "So we went down there and they had this huge net that they drug out in the river on the incoming tide and let it belly out upriver and make a big circle. Then they brought the line back and fed it into what they call a 'donkey motor' — in Virginia they pronounce it 'dunkey' — and the guy running it is the 'donkey man.' We'd stand in these long punt boats elbow to elbow, just grabbing lengths of net, pulling it in, hand over hand. And whatever little fish got their gills caught in it, we got to keep it."
The decades-old recollection is a fascinating look at the creative process of the 52-year-old. He concludes the tale with a typically dry coda. "They actually did give us a real nice bluefish for our efforts," he says. "They didn't mind having extra elbow grease — even if we were city kids."
The songwriter and slow-handed guitar player — who shares lead duties with guitar tech Tim Holt when touring with veteran bandmates drummer Daren Hess and bassist Cornbread — released his debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, in 1989. John Mellencamp, who was starring in a film based on a screenplay by Larry McMurtry, ended up producing the project after the Lonesome Dove author passed some of his son's songs to the heartland rock star.
Then a touring guitarist for Texas Renaissance man Kinky Friedman, McMurtry was living in an apartment above his father's rare bookstore in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. "I happened to be staying in the one with the answering machine," he says. "The light was blinking and I pressed 'play' and it was Mellencamp. He said, 'You gotta be kidding about this fucking kid of yours. Have him come see me.'"
The next day, McMurtry flew to Indiana, despite feeling ill-prepared to make an album. "But I didn't know if the door was going to open again."
Too Long in the Wasteland and its Mellencamp seal of approval established the young artist as one to watch. A string of increasingly lyric-driven albums followed, including 2002's Saint Mary of the Woods, which up until "We Can't Make It Here" contained his most popular song, "Choctaw Bingo." A multi-versed road anthem about traveling to an Oklahoma family reunion, it features a near-manic staccato delivery — like Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on speed. McMurtry revisits that rap-sing style on Complicated Game's "How'm I Gonna Find You Now."
"It's definitely meth-head rock," he deadpans of the new album's first single, which was inspired by a noisy drive in North Texas. "I had a rattle in the dashboard, and that's how it got started. I was at a hunting camp and it was pretty isolated, and I think I got most of that song in one sitting, which is pretty rare for me."
Instead, he often composes in bits and pieces and, before buying a laptop, had boxes of legal pads strewn around his home. When he was feeling creative, he'd sift through his notes and try to match up verses, which he admits is now easier with a computer.
"Once in a while I'll find a verse from 2012 that is the same rhyme and meter scheme as something from 2014," he says. "A song doesn't have to make perfect sense anyway."
Nor does an album have to fit into a particular niche. While Complicated Game is more acoustic-based than past efforts, at the request of his label, McMurtry is arguably the quintessential Americana artist, seamlessly combining rock, country and folk. As such, he's appreciative of the genre and marvels at the work of Jason Isbell and John Fullbright.
"It came along at just the right time for me," he says. "I needed some place to get on the air, and Americana was good to me that way."
Even more important than radio play for McMurtry is the live show. When home, he performs every Wednesday at Austin rock institution the Continental Club. But in between Just Us Kids and the new record, he and the band spent months traveling the country, not only working up songs, but earning a living as well. The way the matter-of-fact McMurtry sees it, the business model has been flipped upside-down and touring has become a necessity. Like the title of his album, it's all a complicated game.
"It used to be we toured to promote record sales and it's really the other way around," he says. "Now we put the records out so you guys will write about us so that somebody will know we're coming to town and buy a ticket."
And maybe a pitcher or two of beer.