Originally published on KDHX.org
The tragedy of Americana troubadour James McMurtry is that he has been flying under the radar far too long.
Having been a mainstay on smaller stages since the early ’90s, McMurtry is of a very dying breed: protest songwriters. Many of his cuts are folky, gritty ballads of lost hope and hard times, accented masterfully by his baritone vocal register and high-flying 12-string. “The billionaires get to pay less tax / the workin’ poor get to fall through the cracks.” That little gem comes from his most deserved hit, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” a scathing ditty of an indictment against the Bush administration, the Iraq War and income inequality — this is McMurtry at his absolute best. In a single song, he can capture the confounding frustration of politics, poverty lines and a new generation of working class caught in a rigged game of monopoly by those that hold all the power.
Virginia-born and Texas-bound, McMurtry is fresh off the release of his first studio project in six years, a long wait from one of Americana’s unique and stalwart voices. His newest album, “Complicated Game,” carries on in the tradition he has established, and in these 3 cuts recorded exclusively for KDHX, he again shows his mastery of a subject that many young performers are too green to touch.
In “Copper Canteen,” he laments simultaneously about the past and the present, singing “we grew up hard / and our children don’t know what that means.” Peeking out from beneath his large-brimmed fedora with a critical gaze, his lyricism is a foxhole of gothic Midwestern imagery.
“Forgotten Coast” takes on a more roots-rock structure, adding a little boogie to his blues, as the song lends itself well to blaring out car windows at high speeds, sunsets being put to rest in your rearview mirror. He sings what he sees, “No one’s gonna find me there / with my steel guitar and a rocking chair.” This is a good one for the good people, still looking for a golden highway.
With “Things I’ve Come To Know” McMurtry relies on his open string style, offering an expansive, dreamlike meditation and a litany of details on well-known love that calls to mind the lyrical structure of Bob Dylan, “She don’t scare easy / but she can be pushed too far.”
You can tell the man pulls inspiration from the important voices of his day. But, if you find yourself in Austin, Texas, check out his weekly show at the Continental Club. Down there, he is the radar that others are watching.