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Feigning disinterest, McMurtry evokes small-town America in song

Jason DeCrow/ap/Associated Press

When the South By Southwest music conference took over Austin, Texas, for its annual to-do last spring, the laconic hometown songwriter James McMurtry decided to have a little fun. His new record label put up a billboard featuring McMurtry mimicking a certain familiar beer ad: “The Most Disinterested Man in the World Pretty Much Always Drinks Beer,” it read, promising the singer’s latest album by the end of the year.

With his weary drawl and his notable aversion to the kind of glad-handing that comes as second nature to most performers, McMurtry has cultivated a trademark dispassion in a career that’s now reached the quarter-century mark. In truth, however, his songs are acerbic, persuasive, and hyper-observant — anything, really, but disinterested.

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McMurtry’s new album, his first in six years, has been held back. It’s now due in February. “I made the mistake of writing one more song they liked and wanted on the record,” he deadpans from his home in Austin. Nevertheless, he’ll bring his hardy wit and his no-nonsense band to Johnny D’s on Saturday.

“We’re gonna have us a time”: That’s the promise of a refrain from “Choctaw Bingo,” one of several McMurtry rambles that could qualify as his signature song.

With straightahead, mid-tempo tunes about strip malls, endless plains, bleak horizons, and other features of the landscape, he’s often classified as an Americana artist. His timely protest song “We Can’t Make It Here,” which McMurtry credits with giving his career a shot in the arm, was named song of the year at the Americana Music Awards for 2006.

The label is just “a catch-all, really,” he says. “For a long time now, we’ve been a rock ’n’ roll bar band. But that’s shifting a bit now — the songs are a little more acoustic-based on this record.”

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Even with C.C. Adcock, the Louisiana bluesman who has worked with Robert Plant and Nick Cave, producing?

“I didn’t say we’ve gone all acoustic,” he replies, likely flashing a wry grin on the other end of the phone line.

When McMurtry first emerged with a ballyhooed debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” in 1989, much was made of the fact that he is the son of the writer Larry McMurtry. Still, the music industry had trouble figuring out what to do with him. Scheduled to play the Bottom Line in New York City on the day his second album was released, he wandered over to the now-defunct Tower Records nearby to look for the new record in the bins.

“In the old days, you wanted your records in the rock section, ’cause people could find them,” he explains. He looked where his stuff was usually stocked — “between Don McLean and MC 900 Foot Jesus” — to no avail. Eventually, he figured out his albums had been in the country section upstairs, which at the time in New York was “as big as a closet.”

Near as he could figure, they were stocked there because he was wearing a hat on the album cover: “They didn’t know the difference between a fedora and a Stetson.”

He did try to sell his songs in Nashville once, way back before he landed a recording deal of his own. But McMurtry’s music has too distinct a voice — sour like pickle juice — to work for other singers.

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These days, “I don’t ever turn on a country station,” he says, noting that the genre’s current stars grew up on arena rock and hip-hop.

“I don’t understand the modern form. It has so much fantasy in it. People need it. It sells, and there’s a reason it sells. I just can’t pull it off.”

He was, however, more than happy to watch his own son head to Nashville. Curtis McMurtry, just into his 20s, released his debut album, “Respectable Enemy,” in August. While he was living in Music City recently (Curtis is now back in Austin), his father flew in for a visit.

“I didn’t give him any advice, but I did introduce him to what few old connections I still had,” McMurtry says, “He had a writing session with Guy Clark, and I got to drive him over there. That way, I had his car for the afternoon.”

He has no illusions about his own career, just as he looks at combat, vanishing jobs, and other harsh realities in his songs with a cold, hard eye.

“I drove all over Nashville, which has changed a lot,” he recalls. “It’s much cooler than it was in the ’80s, I think. It’s lost some of its southernness — it’s been hipstered like every other town. But I kinda like that,” he jokes. “It means the wine selection is a lot better.”

Though there’s writing in the blood, McMurtry agrees with other musicians who have a knack for telling stories, several of whom has toured with: They’re not particularly fond of being praised as “writerly” songwriters.

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“It’s not a short story, it’s a verse,” he explains. “It’s a totally different muscle.”

The distinction, he says, is simple. “You can’t tell a good story in a song if the song sucks, ’cause nobody will listen to it.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.