Americana? Folk? Y’all-ternative? Alt-country?
Many roots-rock musical artists defy easy categorization, and James McMurtry, who will perform with his band at the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet on Saturday, is among them.
Though McMurtry is a Texan, and a Virginian who also has ties to Myrtle Beach and South Carolina, he shirks those regional labels and is a self-described “American;” an American who only reluctantly accepts the Americana label with which he’s been tagged. Like Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Prine and John Mellencamp - McMurtry fits best into the singer/songwriter/poet/roots rock star mold, defying an easy brand. “I’m Kris Kristofferson meets Crazy Horse,” said the 51-year-old McMurtry from his home in Austin, Texas.
This cult favorite with followers from Bangor, Maine to the heart of Texas may not be a household name, but still McMurtry has captured the attention of a diverse and adoring fan base, which includes horror author Stephen King. Those who know his music well all seem to love his down-to-earth, sometimes quirky, but uniquely American tales of woe, heartbreak, and social commentary delivered through live performances and recordings spanning a 30-year career.
As Americana as Apple Pie
As the Americana genre continues to make in-roads into the hearts and minds of music lovers, it broadens its criteria for inclusion. In fact there is no hard and firm definition for just what exactly “Americana” is. But most agree it’s about substance over style – its lyrical content is more important than its musical instrumentation and techniques, but both play a role. McMurtry’s music is not Texas swing, or country, or straight rock ‘n’ roll – his songs and style are at ground level, down-and-dirty as seen through a street poet’s eye. He pens tunes about crystal meth, moonshine, hurricanes, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and dusty ghost towns.
Whether he’s completely comfortable with it or not, James McMurtry’s is Americana.
He won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year and Song of the Year in 2006. But without seeming hostile or ungrateful, McMurtry tends to downplay the importance of awards and associations. He’s a natural contrarian and unlikely to completely embrace an idea or agree with anything anyone anywhere might have to say…at any time. You get the feeling that if he was told the “sky is blue,” McMurtry would find a perfectly logical argument to why it was not blue, but rather a rainbow of colors absent the yellows and reds, and that somebody somewhere must be to blame. We spoke to him from his home in Austin, Texas and soon found out what makes him tick; namely drama, and ultimately that’s maybe why he’s such a well-respected and interesting songwriter and performer.
While Americana music makes in-roads around the world – some think it’s the next wave of American music, like blues and jazz - the Grand Strand gets its fair share, perhaps more than its fair share, of soloists and bands coming to local venues large and small. The artists appeal to those interested in something other than the same old Pablum.
“[Americana] is where they sweep people that don’t fall into any other category,” said McMurtry. “The Americana Music Association has branched out and Robert Plant is now Americana.” He’s got a point. The British-born Led Zeppelin front man has scored with Americana hits and recognition on several occasions with Alison Krauss and their brilliant recording “Raising Sand,” as well as Plant’s group, Band of Joy, which is loaded with Nashville players and songwriters.
McMurtry is the son of Larry McMurtry, the author best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove,” a hit novel-turned-hit-TV-miniseries. The younger McMurtry was born in Fort Worth, Texas, grew up in Northern Virginia and spent time along the Grand Strand, and in Florence where his grandparents are both buried. “My [maternal] granddad was a Health Officer at the Myrtle Beach Air Force base,” he said. “We used to spend a couple of weeks each year down on Pawleys Island before it got condo-ed, and they built all that crap on stilts. There was a party boat that ran out of Murrells Inlet, and we’d go out and catch sea bass.”
Back to the Inlet
Saturday’s 8 p.m. show at the Dead Dog Saloon will be McMurtry’s first visit back to the Grand Strand in decades, though he’s performed in Charleston within the last few years. It was at a Charleston show in 2012 that McMurtry first met Dead Dog Saloon co-owner and Americana fan, John Campbell.
“In our effort to book more national shows, I made a point to meet James McMurtry at a show at The Pour House in Charleston,” said Campbell. “I casually told him what we’re doing here at the Dead Dog, and he was interested in coming. We tried for almost a year-and-a-half to make the timing work, and finally the dates matched up.”
This show will be the first in what Campbell hopes may be four or five national shows in 2013, and represents a continuing commitment to book national acts at the popular Marsh Walk restaurant and live music venue. In the past Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Isbell was formerly with the Drive by Truckers), and The Gourds (famed for a bluegrass/countrified version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”) have performed. “Last year we would have done more, but the fire slowed us down,” said Campbell. The devastating fire that totally destroyed the restaurant last spring may have slowed, but didn’t stop the long-established commitment to live music - local, regional or national. “We ended up moving The Gourds show to the Boathouse [Waterway Bar & Grill] because we didn’t have a building for three months after the fire,” said Campbell. “The year before we did three [national] shows. I think we’ve had Jason Isbell four times.”
“Americana acts seem to fit well here at the Dead Dog, and I personally have an affinity for the roots-rock scene,” continued Campbell, “but on top of that we kind of have the Tex-Mex theme going – Dudley [the Dead Dog mascot], the cacti, the desert…so these Austin bands; The Gourds, McMurtry, fit well into our model. Jason Isbell fits well. I don’t think you’ll ever see a death-metal punk show here.”
Roots Rock at the Beach
Pine Lakes Tavern in Myrtle Beach (formerly Droopy’s) is co-owned by Anderson Knott, a long time mover and shaker in not only the local music and bar scene (Hurricane Cove, Stoney Cove), but with major artist ties as well. Knot was first on the job with North Carolina-based Jolene and South Carolina’s Hootie and the Blowfish in the ‘90s. He’s stayed with Darius Rucker in the post-Hootie days in various management and support positions, and has been on-and-off the road with Rucker through his highly successful rise into country music stardom.
“Jeff Roberts was my introduction to Americana,” said Knott, who was taking a breather during last week’s annual Monday after the Masters charity golf event and all-star jam at the House of Blues. “Jeff was the master, and I respected the chef.” “Big” Jeff Roberts was the beloved and well-known, self-proclaimed Myrtle Beach Minister of Music for many years before his passing. Spending countless hours at Roberts’ now closed Sounds Familiar record shop was a rite of passage for many locals interested in music, and Roberts was the go-to-guy for professionals and hobbyists of all ages interested in almost any type of recorded music - but he had a fondness for Americana, a gospel he tried to spread. “Jeff turned me on to Whiskeytown and I never looked back.”
Whiskeytown was the mid-90s Raleigh N.C.-based alt-country act once fronted by Ryan Adams. “They had a grunge-y rock and folk sound blend,” said Knott. “I love that style of music because its not polished, and has some dust on it. When we’re on the road with Darius [Rucker] we listen to Wilco, we’re all huge R.E.M. fans. I would have put R.E.M. into the Americana category if it had been around back then.”
Also regularly dipping into the pool of up-and-coming or well-established Americana acts beyond the already mentioned Dead Dog Saloon, are local venues Hot Fish Club, and Pine Lakes Tavern, Bourbon Street Bar & Grill, the Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill, Pirate’s Cove in North Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island Tavern, the Plyler Park Stage in Myrtle Beach, NOSH in Pawleys Island and the House of Blues.
Pirate’s Cove will host Aaron Lee Tasjan and James Findley in late July, Jesse Stockton on May 2, and Charleston-based Danielle Howle on Friday – all of whom fall into the Americana category. Tasjan, who was recently on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” will perform with McMurtry at the Dead Dog Saloon Saturday along with opener Jonny Burke.
While the Dead Dog Saloon and other small venues are branching out into the national Americana scene, the Strand’s best known Americana promoters are those involved in the music education non-profit group South by Southeast. Its new President, Seth Funderburk, was there nearly from the organization’s beginning in 2003. Along with deceased co-founder Roberts, Funderburk is another self-described superfan of not just the Americana genre as a whole, but of McMurtry especially.
“South by Southeast has always leaned heavily in the direction of Americana music,” said Funderburk, who is the manager and audio engineer of local rock group Ten Toes Up.
“I’m a huge McMurtry fan,” said Funderburk, who travels with a Myrtle Beach contingent to Nashville annually attending the Americana Music Association Awards show and convention. “When I saw [McMurtry] in Charleston a while back I noticed that he’s got this intensity when he plays. He looks right through you. And he’s got a strange, deadpan sense of humor. He can be really funny. I’ve got like 15 of his dad’s books.”
Funderburk’s Ten Toes Up will head home early from a two-nighter in Spartanburg this weekend so that Funderburk won’t miss McMurtry’s gig. “We purposely left Saturday open in our schedule so we could go to the show,” said Funderburk. “It would have hurt my heart to miss McMurtry, especially because he’s playing across the street from my house.”
Maybe It’s all Just Rock ‘n’ Roll?
While Funderburk does not consider Ten Toes Up an Americana band, nor presumably does the band, the act will continue to work some of its singles to the Americana radio format. The band has just released “Paper House,” a 12-song Nashville-produced studio project. “We’ve worked some tunes to Americana radio stations in the past, and though some of our songs fit that category, I wouldn’t say we’re Americana – we’re really just a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Funderburk’s comments exemplify the difficulty in gaining a consensus on the definition of Americana music. If Ten Toes Up, with its organic, earthy instrumentation, and songs about textile mill closings, and Southern girls is not Americana, then what is?
McMurtry has his own take on the classification. “If I’m playing a solo show, then you might call me ‘folk,’ he said, “but if I’m with my band it’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
Banging it out in Bangor
And the Americana tag knows no regional boundaries.
It was in Maine, of all the unlikely places, where McMurtry found his biggest audience and perhaps most influential fan. “Stephen King has a big classic rock station in Bangor, Maine [WKIT-FM 100.3],” said McMurtry, “and he heard the live version of “Levelland” and went out and bought the record. His program director actually spun “Choctaw Bingo” in all of its eight-minute-and-49-second glory, which nobody in the radio world will ever do, but in Maine they’ll try anything. It got pretty popular, and then he spun ‘We Can’t Make it Here’.”
While McMurtry’s first album debuted in 1989, it was the socially conscious and politically charged 2005 song “We Can’t Make it Here” that helped him grow his national following, especially in the hard-hit Northeast, where manufacturing jobs had dried up leaving once vibrant cities devastated in the wake of outsourcing.
“We Can’t Make it Here” is McMurtry’s best-known tune, and takes aim at then-President George W. Bush, Walmart and the Iraq war. “By the time [WKIT] played “We Can’t Make it Here,” Maine had already lost 30,000 jobs to outsourcing,” said McMurtry, “which is really what that song is all about. Suddenly Stephen King had built me a market – I think Bangor is still our biggest market in the U.S. I’ve played there numerous times. The first time we were there Stephen King introduced us. We felt like the Beatles – the screaming throughout the show was louder than the band.”
Though his best-known tune may be political in nature, McMurtry says he’s not a political songwriter. “ ‘We Cant Make it Here’ is one of a very few political songs I’ve written,” he said. “Political songs are a small fraction of my catalog. But that one got noticed, and I’m not complaining, you’ve got to get noticed for something, but I write songs about heartbreak, divorce, parenthood, economics – a lot of social commentary but not a lot of political protest songs.”
McMurtry’s discography includes some 11 projects released since 1989; the latest “Live in Europe” was released in 2009. His last studio album, “Just us Kids,” was released in 2008, and recording is set to begin for a new studio project to be released later in the year. Never at the top of the charts, McMurtry began his career with one of the biggest labels to ever exist; Columbia. But he’ll be happy to tell you how that got all screwed up, while remaining grateful for a long career.
“Somehow I stayed alive,” he said. “I was around when Triple A [Adult Album Alternative radio] started up, I charted the very first Triple A No. 1 in 1989, ‘Where’s Johnny,’ and then the format grew to the point where it had hundreds of [reporting] stations nationally and then Triple A stopped playing my stuff, and I got dropped from Columbia.”
Passing the torch?
McMurtry is divorced and has a 22-year-old-son, Curtis McMurtry, who seems to be the bright spot in the life of this somewhat otherwise melancholy artist. “Curtis is finishing college. He writes really good songs, has a great band (God’s Chosen People) and is a great bandleader.”
Earning a living means constant touring, and a steady performance schedule when home in Austin. The music biz ain’t what it used to be, according to McMurtry, who says many an executive who once roamed around in ivory towers were destined for a fall.
“[The peer-to-peer file sharing] hasn’t affected me that much,” said McMurtry. “I’m making most of my money on the road any way, but the Internet sure upset the apple cart. In a way I was kind of glad to see it because those label guys back in the 1980s were so cocky they thought nothing could happen to their industry, it was recession-proof, people always bought records – now people don’t have to buy records at all – who saw that coming? They’re getting a handle on it, but the royalties are a lot lower for downloads than for CDs. Some people think CDs will go away completely. Then we’re stuck with crappy sounding MP3s – the quality of the sound has gone down so far, that even I notice, and I’m not any kind of tech guy. But MP3s are just one step better than shit. Maybe something will come along that’s better quality?”
The sometimes-difficult life of a fulltime musician (and occasional actor) who maintains a busy touring schedule must have had its Genesis early on? McMurtry has said that his father gave him his first guitar when he was seven. “My dad was always supportive,” he said about his famous novelist father. “He broke the mold. His people were ranchers – they’d never heard of novelists, they read strictly for information. I guess my granddad read some of the early memoirs of the old trail riders, but they didn’t read much, and certainly didn’t know anybody who wrote, so it was harder for him.”
McMurtry’s is an American story, and his music Americana. He likes to complain about things, which is a human trait, seemingly perfected by Americans. He’s a product of intellectuals and of a rough-and-tumble Texas heritage, though he manages both sides of his personality well. “My mother was an academic, an English Professor at the University of Richmond for more than 30 years – she would have preferred that I’d stayed in school. But she didn’t complain.”