James McMurtry with Jonny Burke
8 p.m. Friday
Wormy Dog Saloon
311 E. Sheridan
Naturally, a lot of people want to talk to James McMurtry about how much influence his novelist/screenwriter father, Larry (“Lonesome Dove,” “Brokeback Mountain”), had on his career. It was pretty big, but not in the way you might think.
The comparisons inevitably arise because of the Texas singer’s astute characterizations and eye for detail, but McMurtry actually learned to play guitar from his mother, and was inspired to write by Kris Kristofferson.
“Before anyone turned me onto Kristofferson, I hadn’t really put much thought into where songs came from. I thought they were just there and people snag them,” McMurtry said.
He sort of fell into it, when after kicking around after college, a friend suggested he send demos to the Kerrville New Folk songwriting contest. McMurtry was one of six winners, and decided to move to Nashville, Tenn.
“I met some people who made their living in Nashville writing songs for people. So I figured I could do that. But I didn’t really figure on going for my own record deal. I was just about to move up there and get some kind of staff writer job, when (John Cougar) Mellencamp rode to the rescue,” he said. “At that time, he had hired my dad to write a script for him (1992’s “Falling From Grace”). I pitched him a tape, hoping he would cut one of my songs, so that when I got to Nashville, they would actually rent me an apartment. They ask you, ‘What do you do?’ and you say, ‘I’m a songwriter,’ and they say, ‘No, what do you do?'”
On a wild hair, Mellencamp ended up producing the younger McMurtry’s debut, and so James leaned toward becoming a recording artist, rather than a songwriter. The Mellencamp connection helped him secure a deal with Columbia for 1989’s “Too Long in the Wasteland.”
“I was surprised it didn’t sell any better than it did. But I listen to it now, I know why: I couldn’t sing,” McMurtry said. “It’s a pretty good record despite.”
But it was a start. It’s been a slow slog since, a climb marked by steady touring and good records, but it wasn’t until McMurtry’s seventh studio album, 2005’s “Childish Things,” that he really turned a corner. The album features the stark, prescient, Woody Guthrie-inspired seven-minute paean, “We Can’t Make It Here,” which taps populist rage at working-class struggles while fat cats feather their nests. He released it for free from his Web site, and it struck a chord, bringing him more acclaim than ever before.
Although he hasn’t played that song in more than a year, many venues still sell out. McMurtry followed “Childish Things” with 2008’s equally striking “Just Us Kids,” which features a couple of his finest songs.
McMurtry’s not working on a new album yet, and hasn’t really made any plans. He’s currently supporting a live album, recorded in Europe on his first tour there in 2008. “Live in Europe” features ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, whose playing brings additional depth to the songs. It captures McMurtry in top form, backed by a tight band.
“We were under a little pressure,” he said. “We only had a few shows to pick it from, but it worked out all right.” “Chris Parker