If Austin singer/songwriter James McMurtry ever tires of music, he might fashion a new career as a word conservationist. (And with the Web’s endless over-informationizing of America, could such a reactionary position be far behind?) The man’s reticence is legendary, both in and out of song: Though his tunes convey deep feeling about a variety of issues, his desert-dry delivery got him dubbed “a West Texas Lou Reed” by one reporter.
But given the right social injustice, he’ll gladly allow himself an overdose of commentary. The closing of the Grey Eagle Tavern in Black Mountain six months ago is one such ire-provoking subject. Despite the club’s imminent resurrection — McMurtry was slated to headline the music hall’s grand re-opening in its new Asheville location (185 Clingman Ave.), but due to unexpected delays readying the riverfront venue, he’s appearing at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co. instead — the singer can’t forget what he views as the unjust leasing practices that shut the original Grey Eagle down. He likens the incident to a current situation plaguing his favorite recording studio in Austin.
“They’re raising the rent and turning [artists] out of space that they can barely afford now,” he relates with disgust.
“Here in Austin, life is changing real fast,” he continues, his drawl a loose knot of dark resignation. “Big business is moving in, and anything do with art is secondary. It’s the last thing anyone wants to fund. … I guess we feel like we don’t need it. But I suspect that we do need it.”
He knows he can’t classify the Man’s latest encroachment as a peculiarly Texan outrage, though.
“It’s a national thing … materialism matters so much to us now that people have to work so hard … they don’t have time to play with the things that they’ve bought,” he points out. “And we’ve convinced ourselves that that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s probably the corporations that promote [this urge], but maybe it’s something genetic, too.”
Musically, McMurtry is wont to simmer and seethe without ever approaching a boiling point — sticking with that trademark deadpan delivery. On his latest release, Walk Between the Raindrops (Sugar Hill, 1998), the singer/songwriter disperses his cynical worldview through a host of unlikely messengers. “Comfortable,” for example, is sung through the eyes of a world-weary suburbanite fiercely addicted to complacency: “You never know/When you leave the house/You might come home by a different route/It could take longer than you planned/It could get completely out of hand,” he frets.
But the characters aren’t all stuck in Dullsville. “Fast As I Can” is a bittersweet love story that begins with the unforgettable line, “He was a drinking man with a guitar problem,” and spirals down to this teetering declaration: “If I play it right/I can live like a king/A little bit of hope is a dangerous thing.”
McMurtry, however, rejects the suggestion that penning these wary missives provides any type of catharsis. “It’s more like a craft for me,” he explains. “I’m like a toolmaker. I make these songs, and I might plug certain ones in on a certain night, when I get tired of plugging in other ones. It’s kind of tedious, and not usually therapeutic.”
And he won’t admit to having much passion for his muse, either. To him, that relationship is more a marriage of convenience.
“I avoid [songwriting] like homework,” he notes rather wearily. “It’s nice to have done it, and when you write a cool line, that’s exciting for a while — but I never get the full song in one sitting. I’ve got songs with lines that I can’t sing without cringing, maybe because I was in a hurry, and didn’t wait long enough for [inspiration]. I wind up shelving some songs for years, then every once in a while I find another line sitting around.”
Not surprisingly, McMurtry is not exactly tearing his hair out about the looming Y2K crisis.
“It sells a lot of books,” he observes wryly, relenting after a moment, “Maybe I’ll keep some shotgun shells around, just in case.”
And really, his meandering style of electric folk is as good a soundtrack as any for the last year before the millennium, unwinding, as it does, in the manner of Sunday afternoons: lazy, inevitable, ripe with insight — yet ultimately darkened by that Monday’s-coming apprehension.