Thursday, March 17, 2011

James McMurtry at The Bluebird, Me at 12th and Porter

Lately I've found myself at The Bluebird Cafe a lot. For those who don't know, The Bluebird is a legendary, extremely renowned acoustic listening room in Nashville. 99% of their shows are songwriter rounds, and they have 2 rounds per night: a late round with mostly established songwriters who have lots of hits sung by other people (Montgomery Gentry, Reba MacIntyre, etc), and an early round with mostly songwriters with no hits. Sometimes you see some amazing music. People like Tony Arata, Georgia Middleman, Walt Aldridge, Rivers Rutherford...people with soul, and songs that go beyond being just hits or cuts. Then a lot of times you hear weak carbon copies of older better songs, exclusively about Jesus, whiskey, I'm-from-a-small-town, guns, mama...all fine topics, I suppose, but please - this territory has been freakin' covered. Sometimes you see everything wrong with country music rolled into one show. Last month, I happened to see a late round with 4 lunkheads who were actually worse than the early round (a rarity). Every moment was catered entirely to the "proud of my 15 IQ" crowd, much flak was given to the one guy in the round who forgot his baseball cap, and they worked hard to alienate as much of the crowd as they could with insanely stupid jokes (eg. "What's emptier than an empty soda can? A democrat's head"). Then they started gay bashing, right there the stage. And eventually - you can tell where this is going - they sang a whole gay bashing song they had written. Imagine. This isn't some hole in the wall off the highway in rural Kentucky, this is an esteemed club. Then to finish off the set, we find out that one of them is the guy who wrote "She's Country". So they all played that. Yee haw!

At the other end of the spectrum, in every conceivable way, you have James McMurtry. Here's the thing with James: he rocks. James is out of Texas, and as far as my world goes, in terms of Texas songwriters you have Townes Van Zandt, James McMurtry, and then everyone else. Guy Clark and Willie too, I'll give you that. So James played last night - part of the 1% who gets his own show - and I spent 6 weeks making sure I could be there for it. Amazing. And then...then...sadly, a tragic confluence of events made it so that I could only stand down the back hallway of the Bluebird and listen. I hadn't seen James play in about 2 years, and my soul was painfully aware of the landscapes of which it was being deprived. I used to see James all the time in Austin - he plays almost every Wednesday - and I never had to go too long to start missing him. My old guitar player Charlie is very close to him, and he used to go on about him (like a number of things, I came to find out later that Charlie was right and I was wrong). Like all of the best things ("Exile On Main Street", Bob Dylan, broccoli rabe), James took some extended exposure for me to really come around. Some things plant their talons in you and just grow. With James...there is a way of writing songs that makes you pause and breathe between the lines and notes, like in a novel. What's in the lines somehow emotes this strange shadow that makes you look for what else is there, like he's not telling you everything (and James tells you a lot). It's never finite, it can always change. It's between you and the song. It's endless. What makes it great is what is in the lines, but what makes it everlasting is what's left between them. His characters' landscapes, stories, emotions (or sometimes lack thereof) - the way they're spelled out is very real and you can practically reach out and touch them. Or at least you can feel them brush up against you like an impending tornado squall. The dry, often twisted, pain that these people go through - you feel them, and they don't leave you. And that's what James does. And the authority with which he delivers his songs! It's terrifying! Not for the faint of heart. James McMurtry as a pure singer will never be confused with Aaron Neville or Smokey Robinson, or Norah Jones. Not so much a "singer", per se. Think more Lou Reed. His voice is one of those very rare voices, like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, whose sole timbre is the truth. "We Can't Make It Here" - 3 chords and the truth - that's it, folks. Yet embarrassing as it is to say, I routinely well up when I listen to his music - the vivid pictures and relationships he hits you with, how it could be you, me, someone we love, anyone. How can someone's voice weigh so much, and yet still walk with a light step? The unique and personal melodies he delivers, that belong only to him. He's really a one of a kind, is James. And last night I found myself welling up from the back hall (secretly, of course), listening to so many of these stories going by, too far away from me. "Ruby And Carlos", "Holiday", "Rachel's Song", "Hurricane Party"...on it went. Finally then, towards the end of the show, I was able to go sit down and watch, to close my eyes, and go there. "Levelland", "Lights Of Cheyenne", "Peter Pan". It hit me hard, maybe harder than if I'd been able to watch the whole show. It was the soundtrack of the last 5 or 6 years of my life. I'm considering driving to Birmingham Sunday night to see him again - properly. I don't think I'll ever do that for the "She's Country" guys.

James McMurtry isn't for everyone. Some of you know him, some of you don't. Ruby And Carlos came out right before I packed up and moved to Tennessee. On the studio version, my friend Harmoni sings a harmony part on the chorus. It's one of the most breathtaking fleeting audio moments I know of, I get all John Boehner every time, choking up.

Holding back the flood just don't do no good
You can't unclench your teeth and howl the way you should
So you curl your lips around
And you taste the tears and the hollow sound
That no-one owns but you
No-one owns but you


A couple of weeks back, my band and I played 12th and Porter. Like always, I unknowingly booked a gig in the middle of another Nashville initials week (CMA's, AMA's, CRS, etc etc). My friends Kevin Gordon and Rick Brantley - both excellent - were also on the bill. I think we had 14 total payed at the door. Combined! Oops. And these guys are actually pretty successful artists! But...I will say, for me it still ended up being a very memorable night. When my band and I started, there were 4 people in the crowd. Somehow, by song 3 or 4, another 10 or 15 people had trickled in (there is a lounge outside). Sad, but...what a difference! We didn't know who they were, but they were way into it and stayed for the whole show. It's a small room, so 18 people - it can feel OK. We had 3 new songs in our set, and it was the 2nd show with our newest guitar and bass players. And everybody just played great, and it was such a high! 18 people and it was one of my best band shows. It's crazy, when you forget about your expectations and just go wherever the pitch is, you can sometimes be liberated. Always...always...a pieces of my heart is broken when I put effort into getting people out to shows, and they don't come. Posters, handbills, emails, texts, blogs...and then no-one comes. You can't understand unless you've been there. You feel like what the hell are you doing with your life? We had a special long rehearsal the night before, to work up 3 new songs for this big show. Don't get me wrong, it's not like it happens every show. But when it does, oh is it brutal. It's indescribable, and it can take you to very low places. The winning thing is, though, I'm having so much fun with these guys in the band...we just said fuck it - let's just have fun and give these 4 people a night they'll not soon forget. So Jen Cancino, Larissa, Andy, Kim - thanks! We'll think about who's not here later. I'll think about how far it puts me in the financial hole later. That's the plan, let's execute.

I don't get to play with my band nearly enough (it's economics), but this night showed me that with these guys, no matter what the situation, I think we'll overcome and prevail. And it's going to happen. We've pulled it out every time, but somehow 12th and P took things to the next level, for me anyway. It was fun as shit, and I couldn't be more psyched for the next time I get to play with these guys, and show more than those 18 people what we're capable of. The club loved it, said forget the numbers, we're having you back.

As for life, Kim is doing great, Alaska is doing great, its 78 degrees, and we're cooking out tonight. Thanks for the grill, Dad.