James McMurtry is the best damn songwriter of his generation, and if you try to tell me different, I’ll punch you in the mouth.
McMurtry has released four albums of heartlands vim, vigor and vision, all hammered out of rough, sinewy guitar; a deadpan-earnest, everyman voice; and disarmingly spare language that still manages to pack more detail per line than most writers muster in a whole career.
His latest album, It Had to Happen, is McMurtry’s first with Durham, N.C. indie label Sugar Hill Records. Taken as a whole, it’s his finest hour, a real Americana sucker punch. The songs are diamonds.
But in conversation with the laconic Texan, it’s wise not to dwell too much on the writing — unless you want to do most of the talking yourself. For McMurtry, it’s the guitar work that carries a song.
“[Lyric writing] is the tedious part,” he declares by phone from his Austin, Texas, home. “It’s the homework — it’s what you do before you can plug in an amp and turn it up loud and play, and before anyone will come hear you do that.”
No matter that loud guitar isn’t what many fans are listening for: Singer/songwriter audiences are notorious for staying glued to their chairs — and to the words. And for McMurtry, that’s kind of a dull prospect.
“Fun,” he says, “is when there are no expectations. I’ve learned that we play our best shows in bars — bars where people get drunk and dance. ‘Cause then it doesn’t matter whether it’s James McMurtry playin’, or who it is up there. Everybody’s movin’, there’s a lot of energy, and it’s a pretty good time.”