James McMurtry enjoys playing a ‘Complicated Game’ on new tour

SHARE James McMurtry enjoys playing a ‘Complicated Game’ on new tour

BY JEFF JOHNSON | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Joining the family business might be a no-brainer if you are, say, the son of a cattle rancher. But James McMurtry is a generation removed from his granddaddy’s Archer City, Texas, ranch, so it was a little more of a stretch to follow in his father’s footsteps as a storyteller.

Making the task infinitely more daunting, his dad is Larry McMurtry, whose best-selling novels include “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove” and “Terms of Endearment.

JAMES MCMURTRY With: Max Gomez When: 8 p.m. April 23 Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Tickets: $22 Info: www.lh-st.com

James did not inherit his father’s love of letters. Instead he became a singer-songwriter-guitarist, and at age 53 he’s riding high on the critical and marketplace success of “Complicated Game.” He’s back on the road with this first album of new material since 2008’s “Just Us Kids,” a tour that brings him to Lincoln Hall on April 23.

“Complicated Game” is a landscape of rural Americana that might seem the aural equivalent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the New Mexico desert – with vast open spaces that make every detail stand out. Its razor-sharp observations and meticulously etched characters suggest that McMurtry is writing from personal experience, but he dismisses this notion.

“Pretty much none of my music is [autobiographical],” he says.” I’m primarily a fiction writer.”

Still, it’s easy to see “Complicated Game’s” leadoff track, “Copper Canteen,” as a first-person account when McMurtry sings, “Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun/I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.”

The “I” isn’t really him, he insists. ”I hear a line in my head and say, ‘Who said that?’ There’s a direct line from that to the character and the character to the story,” he says of the songwriting process.

Don’t expect McMurtry to delve into long-form fiction, though. He’s seen his father’s self-discipline, and he has no patience for it.

“It’s a chore to me. He writes five pages a day to keep in tune. I usually write a line at a time. I’ll come up with a verse, a chorus and eventually the whole song. And Larry doesn’t write verse,” he says in his own defense.

While his dad is also known for his second career as a bookseller, James had his fill of books as a teenager in Leesburg, Va., helping out with Larry’s store in Washington, D.C.’s, Georgetown area.

“I didn’t care much for ‘em,” he says. “I just stacked ‘em and moved ‘em. I didn’t like books, just like my dad didn’t like cows.”

James McMurtry | Photo by Shane McCauley

James McMurtry | Photo by Shane McCauley

Still, Larry McMurtry never stood in the way of his son’s career. “He was fine with it; he’d already broken the mold,” he says. “I didn’t have to fight anybody to be an artist.”

James had no qualms when his 24-year-old son Curtis McMurtry pursued a career in music. Curtis plays banjo on “Complicated Game” and recently released his first solo album, “Respectable Enemy.” James has been known to joke onstage about “having about five minutes between being Larry’s son and Curtis’ dad,” but the punch line doesn’t reflect his mind-set.

“It’s not something that worries me,” he says. ”It’s just something that’s supposed to happen, in that it’s good if your kids take it a little further than you did.”

McMurtry says he and Curtis, a former music composition major, “have done some father-son stuff in Austin. That’s scary. He definitely has a broader scope than I do as a musician.”

Settling in Austin, with its thriving live music scene, was primarily a matter of convenience, says the former “dual citizen” of Texas and Virginia.

”Austin is a really good place for touring musicians because it’s almost equidistant between the two coasts,” McMurtry says. ”If you lived on either coast, you’d have to stay out on the road for about eight weeks. Being in Austin is a little more compact. I suppose it’s the same for Chicago. You can do it in shorter hops of three weeks or so, so touring doesn’t impact your life as much. And there are a lot of live gigs here so you can keep your chops up.”

Jeff Johnson is a local freelance writer.

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