For the life of me, I cannot understand why James McMurtry isn’t a household name. Well, it is in my household but judging from the sparse crowd at Saturn last Thursday night you could say that his name recognition needs a bump. The open spaces on the floor at Saturn were as embarrassing as the open spaces at a Trump inauguration. The bartender told me that the concert venue here holds about 500. I don’t know about that but it looked like about 200 were here, and those who were here were treated to a stellar show at Saturn (pun intended). This place is small enough that the artist and audience can really connect – literally and figuratively.
Saturn is owned by Alabama native Brian Teasley (aka Birdstuff) who you may know from a band called Man or Astro-Man?, a Dick-Dale-ish sounding punk surfer group who I’ve seen in Atlanta many times. I don’t know if they currently tour but I saw them recently, maybe two or three years ago, at The Earl in East Atlanta. The sound system here at Saturn is sublime – what you’d expect when a musician owns the joint. The décor in Saturn, as well as the name, holds true to the science fiction and spaced out themes which were the hallmark of Man or Astro-Man? You almost expect to see George Jetson having a Martian Martini at the bar. Saturn is new. It opened in 2015 in Avondale, one of the cool hip communities of Birmingham.
I’ve enjoyed James McMurtry concerts in all kinds of venues in many different states of the Union and each time it’s been a near-religious experience. People who need labels call him alt-country, Americana, folk, and roots rock. I would call him an American treasure and a bard for our time. His father is Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain) and his mother an English professor who taught him how to play guitar at age 7. James attended the University of Arizona where he began to write and perform his original material. Then he moved back to Texas where he worked as a bartender (very important for song material) among other things. In the many times I’ve seen Mr. McMurtry perform I’ve never heard him mention his famous pappy. And James does spin a yarn or two on stage to give his audience background on his songs. But they’re never about Larry.
As it happened, John Mellencamp was working on a film based on one of Daddy McMurtry’s scripts, and James had a demo that found its way to Mr. Mellencamp. The film was the forgettable “Falling From Grace” (1992) but the soundtrack was (and is) absolutely amazing. On it, the song “Sweet Suzanne” is credited to Buzzin’ Cousins and is sung by Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Joe Ely, and James McMurtry. Mellencamp was so smitten, musically that is, by James McMurtry that he produced his first release Too Long In the Wasteland. The title track is worth a listen and has been a staple in live shows, including this show at Saturn. It is a rousing electric number and was the last song in the set before the encore.
Since we’re on the subject of listen-worthy songs, your musical life will be improved if you go to YouTube or better yet purchase the releases that include “We Can’t Make It Here” and “Choctaw Bingo”. Then go “have yourself a time”.
And no whining about not liking country or even alt-country, or whatever the label-of-the-month is being used to describe James. It is quality music and genre-bending, and they happen to be two of my favorite JM tunes. I saw McMurtry and band perform “Choctaw Bingo” at a hole-in-the-wall club called the Red Light Café in Atlanta. As James introduced this crowd pleaser
“This is a song about the North Texas – Southern Oklahoma crystal meth-
patrons were hastily folding their chairs and leaning them against the wall to produce a dance floor in front of the stage. An amazingly surreal sweaty hootenanny ensued. That was the first and only time I’ve seen people dance at any Red Light Café concert.
If you’ve never been to Austin, Texas go there. Soon. If you enjoy live music you owe it to yourself. The shirts say “Keep Austin Weird”. I hope so. Then visit the Continental Club on Congress Avenue. Sweaty hootenannies are the norm there. So is James McMurtry and band. When he is not touring he is bound to show up on Wednesdays around midnight. Even if he is not there, you will see musicians known and unknown who will blow you away.
James McMurtry is not an animated performer. He is a storyteller. His lyrics will take you places you’ve never visited before. His voice will weave tapestries and paint landscapes of winners and losers, of heroes and villains, and of regular folk like you and me. He does this with both boots planted firmly on the stage.
The show at the Saturn started low key and on time with Jonny Burke as the opening act. The crowd had only started to build and the few who were there were not very receptive. His songs were slow and melancholy. He played for about 40 minutes and actually picked up the tempo for his last two tunes but it was too late for a save. He should have started with them.
When James came out it was also low key but the crowd erupted for their champion. He opened with “Bayou Tortous” from Just Us Kids (2008), which is also the opener for Live In Europe (2009). The band, sometimes called the Heartless Bastards, is composed of Cornbread on bass and vocal harmonies, Darren Hess on drums, and Tim Holt on guitar and squeezebox. The career-spanning set list was expertly carved from the McMurtry catalog. “Red Dress” followed from Saint Mary of the Woods (2002), then the title track from Just Us Kids. Four songs in a row from Complicated Game (2015) were next. That most recent release came after a six year drought, but it was worth the wait. It’s quality, not quantity, that counts. Complicated Game is “about relationships, and the big old world versus the poor little farmer or fisherman” according to James.
The second half of the set included two more songs from Saint Mary, including “Choctaw Bingo”, two from Where’d You Hide the Body (1995), two from Too Long in the Wasteland (1989) including that title track, two from Childish Things (2005), two from It Had To Happen (1997) and one from Walk Between the Raindrops (1998). Truly career-spanning. Missing was “Out Here in the Middle”, another of my faves, and there was nothing included from Candyland (1992). Not a complaint – just an observation.
This was my third concert in my newly adopted home of Birmingham, each at a different venue. Saturn is by far my favorite, mostly due to the intimate size. Even though the crowd was small to see James McMurtry, I sensed that everyone there was connecting – to James, to the music, and to each other. Stephen King called James “the truest, fiercest, songwriter of his generation”. I can’t argue with that.
Until the next concert, it’s time for my boot heels to be wanderin’.
The three images of James with more facial hair (two of them signed) were taken by yours truly at shows years ago in Atlanta. In case you were curious.