James McMurtry plays Prescott Park
Originally published in Seacoast Scene 25 August 2016
Every September, James McMurtry and his band spend a long weekend in Maine. The tradition began when WKIT, a Bangor classic rock radio station owned by Stephen King, added McMurtry’s album Childish Things to its playlist. “They put ‘Choctaw Bingo’ on, which is like nine minutes long and crazy for radio, “ McMurtry said recently. “But they had the nerve; then we put out ‘We Can’t Make It Here.’”
The latter, a searing indictment of modern economic marginalization, was named song of the decade by several critics. It particularly resonated in Bangor. “For awhile, that was our best market anywhere,” McMurtry said. “Maine at that time had lost about 30,000 jobs to outsourcing, which is mainly what that song was about. It lit up the phones pretty good … we could sell out a 500-seat theatre five nights in a row.”
This year, McMurtry added an outdoor show at Portsmouth’s Prescott Park to gigs at the Blue Hill Fair in Bangor and Savage Oakes Winery in Union, Maine. “We’re just going to fly into Manchester, rent a car and drive around for three days and then fly home,” he said.
Some of the songs in McMurtry’s set will be drawn from his most recent LP, 2015’s Complicated Game. His first new disc in six years, it’s a strong effort, balancing hard luck story songs – “South Dakota,” “Carlisle’s Haul” – with aching tenderness on tracks like “She Loves Me” and “You Got to Me.”
One of the best is “Long Island Sound,” with a wry optimism that recalls “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp (an early McMurtry booster). The song’s narrator is an Oklahoman who’s transplanted his family to New York and the American dream. “A bay boat and a 401k/two cars in the driveway, two boys and a girl” is atypical subject matter for McMurtry.
Hearing him explain the song’s beginnings provides an enlightening glimpse into his creative process.
“I was stuck on the Whitestone Bridge after my son’s college graduation – Google Maps pointed me across it instead of the Throg’s Neck,” McMurtry said. “I realized that’s the way of life for a lot of people. So I started playing around with words and came up with the notion of writing the anti- ‘stuck up here with Dixie on my mind’ song [about] a Southerner working in the north that likes it.”
McMurtry quashes the notion that the mood of the new record signals a personal mellowing. “I write songs one line at a
time,”he said. “I’m not really thinking in a certain vein, just trying to follow the melody and the chord structure.”
He has strong views on the current political landscape. “I’s not Trump himself that we have to worry about, if he wasn’t running there would be somebody like him,” he said, adding, “I don’t understand why anybody’s surprised by any of this.
Timothy McVeigh blew the side off a building, killed a bunch of kids because he didn’t like the government … long before Obama. There was a groundswell of support for David Koresh in Waco, so it surprises us that there’s a groundswell of support for Cliven Bundy? It’s the same thing.”
However, McMurtry needs a story before any of these observations become lyrics. “I don’t write songs as an act of will … I need a character,” he said. “Very rarely do I write a song where I get my point across. I got really lucky with ‘We Can’t Make it Here.’”
On the album, “Long Island Sound” morphed into a Celtic drinking song, with heavy layers of Irish penny-whistle and mandolin. “I don’t know where they came up with that idea,” McMurtry said with chagrin. “They emailed the song to Ireland; the Irish guys put their stuff on and sent it back.”
Much about how producer C.C. Adcock finished Complicated Game is also a mystery to McMurtry, who toured a lot during its making. “I was there for awhile for Ivan Neville’s vocal sessions, he was pretty cool,” he said, “but I’m not really sure how
Benmont Tench wound up on that record … I think they just found out he was in New Orleans, dragged him into the studio and made him play keyboards.”
On the other hand, McMurtry was quite pleased with the version of “She Loves Me” that ended up on the album. It sounds
enough like one of Randy Newman’s best songs that they toyed with the notion of asking him to add a vocal. “None of us knew how,” McMurtry said. “I did not know when I wrote the song, but later when we listened to it, I said it’d be perfect for Randy Newman.”
When: Thursday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Prescott Park, Portsmouth
Tickets: $10 suggested donation