Known for his literary lyrics, veteran singer-songwriter James McMurtry says he can thank his high school poetry teacher for giving him a way with words.
“I started writing verse in high school,” he says via phone from his Austin home. “It came pretty easy. I had a good poetry teacher who taught rhyme schemes and meter schemes and all that. It was easy to write a verse, but it was hard to write a whole song.”
McMurtry, who just issued Complicated Games
, his first new studio album in five years, started playing cover tunes at a college hangout in Tucson. It was one of the first places that gave him a regular gig in the early ‘80s. At the time, he was a student at the University of Arizona.
“They gave me ten bucks and free beer,” he says of the gig. “I thought that was a pretty good deal back then. I don’t think I was really writing yet. I wasn’t playing original material. I was trying to do the most obscure covers I could think of. You just had to do at least one Jimmy Buffett song to please the food and beverage manager to get the gig.”
While Tucson had a cool indie rock scene back then and featured acts such as Giant Sand/Howe Gelb and Green on Red, that’s not the crowd that McMurtry hung with. Rather, he befriended the old-time bluegrass guys.
“I played backup guitar for those old fiddlers,” he says. “In the early ‘80s, there were a lot of old guys who could really play the fiddle. Some of them would come from Appalachia and from various parts of the country. They were living in trailer parks. They knew songs that nobody else who was alive knew. They were songs that they passed with them.”
Produced by John Mellencamp, his 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland
, couldn’t be classified as bluegrass, but it did have a certain twang to it. And it announced that McMurtry, the son of writer Larry McMurtry, had a good knack for words.
The new album commences with the twangy “Copper Canteen,” a song about hunting season that features McMurtry’s signature sneer and a plodding drumbeat. It sets the tone for the album, yet another solid effort from McMurtry, who has said the new album is mostly about relationships.
“I didn’t set out to write a whole album that way,” he says. “These are the songs that got finished in time to make a record. I write songs one line at a time. I get a few lines and a melody. I have to think, ‘Who said that?’ I try to envision the character who said it. From there, I walk backwards and get the story.”
He says the song aren’t necessarily about him.
“A lot of my characters wouldn’t agree with me politically, but you have to stay in character to get the song written,” he says.
The album is also about “the big old world versus the poor little farmer or fisherman.”
“There’s a couple of those types of songs,” he says. “There’s ‘South Dakota’ which about a soldier coming back to his ranch and the ranch getting obliterated. It actually happened in October of 2013. They had an early blizzard that wiped out a lot of ranchers. They brought up cattle from Texas because Texas was in such a horrible drought, that they were selling cattle for cheap. The cattle didn’t have winter coats and the October blizzard just obliterated them.”
He knew about the incident because his father, writer Larry McMurtry, told him about the tragedy.
“My father called up and asked, ‘Have you heard about the tragedy?’” he says. “I said, ‘Which one?’ He told me about the blizzard. It struck me as rather odd because he hates cows. He grew up ranching cows. He never did like cows or horses or any of that, but he does have an affinity for ranching people. The tragedy really got to him.”
Though his songs are filled with colorful images, McMurtry says he doesn’t read a lot of fiction and poetry.
“I don’t read much," he says. "My father collected books. I had an aversion to books the way he had an aversion to cows.”
James McMurtry, Max Gomez, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20, beachlandballroom.com.