This weekend I had the privilege of attending a live, solo, acoustic performance by James McMurtry at The Saxon Pub in Austin, TX. My familiarity with McMurtry is a result of his song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”, which could be the theme song for the US’s current state of affairs. It is a raw, poetic expression of what has been happening to this country; a more honest national anthem for post-1980 America.
The show itself was an unforgettable experience. The Saxon is a tiny, intimate venue. And when I say intimate that can be quite literal in the standing room only areas as moving from point A to B ensures the mutual violating of personal space. Luckily when McMurtry took the stage the desire to go anywhere quickly vanished. One was grateful just to be standing there.
He is an incredible lyricist. The comparison with Bob Dylan is a fair one, although McMurtry is more grit than ethereal, more storyteller than mystic. His stage presence is…intense. At times it felt like he was almost glaring at you as those haunting, soulful verses poured out. In my case it’s possible he was actually glaring at me as I was blocking the door and he literally had to bump me out of the way to make his way towards the stage. All I can say, Mr. McMurtry, if you happen to read this, is that it was an honor.
The feeling and emotion he put into every tune was astounding, especially when one considers that he’s performed each song hundreds of times. He tells stories with his music; gut-wrenching tales, unapologetically dark, profound, and real…almost too real. One could say depressing. But his refusal to shy away from the harsh and uncomfortable aspects of human existence is part of his greatness. You are pulled into the drama and raw emotion of each song, like a riveting novel or movie.
Being at this show I felt that I was in the presence of a living legend, an American master. In the era of Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga, McMurtry is destined to be an underrated, underappreciated talent who probably never makes it to household name status. His message is not likely to meet the corporate approval prerequisite of attaining mass popularity. Frankly I doubt that he cares much. His is not generally feel good music, but it is music that you will feel, and feel deeply. And I should also mention that he rips it up on the twelve string acoustic guitar. His proficiency with the guitar is up there with his ability to craft soul-stirring verses.
In summary, let’s just say that I will definitely be going out of my way to catch another live James McMurtry performance.
In case any of my illustrious readers are unfamiliar, here's a sample. This is the album version of "We Can't Make It Here Anymore".