Complicated Game by James McMurtry


by John Ellis

Some of my favorite childhood memories are the times my grandfather would take me to Jacks[1] to have breakfast with him and his buddies, and it wasn’t just because he let me pick whatever I wanted off the menu. No, those times reside sweetly in my memory because of the joviality and mischievousness with which that group of old men shared stories. Sitting on plastic seats, surrounded by the likes of retired soldiers, utility workers, and professional baseball players, I learned, among other things, the communal joy found in yarn-spinning and the power of self-deprecation. Whatever hierarchy was present in that group of laughing, warm-hearted old men was based on the ability to hold the table’s attention with a tale. It’s no wonder that I became an actor, or, currently more relevant, a lover of storytelling, specifically its iteration called Americana/roots music.

It’s also little wonder that I’m a fan of James McMurtry; in fact, I’m willing to bet that if any of my grandfather’s group are still alive[2], their fast-food breakfast discussions include expressing their esteem for Complicated Game, the latest from the songwriting extraordinaire McMurtry.

With perhaps a tinge more melancholic navel-gazing than the stories the young me heard at Jacks, Complicated Game is the musical reminiscent of a gent who hasn’t yet reached the luxurious age of fast-food fueled communal tall-tales but who has earned his dusty and frayed troubadour badge nonetheless. Of course, McMurtry comes by his storytelling ability the most honest of ways – the novelist, James McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, among other notable 20th century novels, is his father. His mother, a guitar playing English professor, helped him consummate the oh-so-holy marriage of song and story. Beyond the helpful but not necessary ingredient of genes, McMurtry’s well-traveled life is talentedly translated through the tales found in his music. His adroit storytelling is a product of his willingness to observe, his talent to communicate, and his courage to translate. The genre he operates in cannot exist apart from storytellers like James McMurtry.

I’ve always considered myself an alt-rock with definite leanings to hard-core punk kind of guy, except over the last few years I’ve noticed an evolution in my music library[3]. In fact, so far in 2015, as of the writing of this review, I have evaluated thirty-six new albums and twenty-seven of those albums fit nicely in the genre(s) of Americana/alt-country/roots music. More importantly, my middle-aged record collection leans heavily on artists who are as much storytellers as they are musicians. On one hand, this is excellent; on the other hand, I’m pissed off at my pre-middle-aged self for missing out on McMurtry’s earlier works like Childish Things, for example. However, I guess I should be thankful. I mean, engagement with James McMurtry requires an aesthetic commitment that would’ve been confounded by my myopic youthful arrogance[4].

Listening at the feet of modern-day existential oracles isn’t for the faint of heart. It either takes the open-hearted innocence of a child or the wizened grateful acceptance of those who know what it means to be flatteringly described as “plodding.” With Complicated Game James McMurtry renders it all bare, whatever “all” means, and we listeners are left to gape in awe at the level of resonance with which McMurtry uncovers our private thoughts, fears, and moments that fuel our future self-deprecation. The speed with which the opening track “Copper Canteen” rips off the absurd band aids of mid-life crisis is painful, but in the feels-oh-so-damn-great way. There’s unexpected freedom in being unable to steer your new sports car around the realization that “So little we save/ between the grandparents’ grave/ and the grandchildrens’ toys.” Delivering those lyrics is the honest and strangely beautiful warbling of McMurtry that adds interesting musical layers that sink deep and real.

The stories, relayed through McMurtry’s poetry, are gilded in the most ornate of musical dressings – excellently simple. With music that belongs to the lyrics but without sacrificing a full, rich sound that would be at home in a concert hall, the James McMurtry Band, consisting of McMurtry (obviously), Daren Hess, Tim Holt, and Cornbread, creates a sonic environment that borrows the soft comfort found in the creak of a porch swing and the comforting crackle found in the call of the summer cicadas. With that possible contradiction stated, it should be pointed out that belonging in a concert hall v. front porch is a dichotomy that doesn’t exist on Complicated Game; the James McMurtry Band creates music with an appeal that approaches universal. It’s music that speaks to us where we’re at, not where we want to be or, worse, where we pretend to be. And that can’t happen if the musicality isn’t within the range of superb.

Complicated Game is an album that demonstrates the power of melding multiple musical sensibilities – but, that’s Americana. Breakfast meetings of a group of disparate old men whose love for company that can tell a good story belies the fact that they have externally very little in common is also Americana. In fact, most of us, whether we admit it or not, are Americana. Our stories weave in and out and, at times, seem at cross purposes with the stories of our neighbors. Those clashes, if humility allows, most often prove that conflict can create a beauty that builds on the campfire stories of our forefathers. Complicated Game states that with a voice that transcends differences, and, in doing so, helps occupy the space carved out by the interplay found within work breaks on factory floors, the loving tension helping keep families close at annual reunions, and the efforts to top the tall-tales of the friend sitting across from you.

There are times when I watch my kids engrossed in the iPad or I realize that I would melt down in a heap of unfunctionability without my smart phone, and I wonder if I’ve strayed too far from those early mornings at Jacks. Complicated Game by James McMurtry warmly chides and encourages me that the externals and idiosyncrasies of epochs aren’t what connect humans, and those externals and idiosyncrasies are no threat to humanity. Stories exist because humans exist; and as long as stories exist, storytelling will bind us together. With Complicated Game, James McMurtry has released an artful piece of evidence that storytelling is what helps make us human.

[1] You don’t remember Jacks? That probably means that you are either too young or you never lived in the Deep South. FYI: here’s an article about a restaurant that plays a role in many of my childhood memories.

[2] They would be pushing 100, if not already over.

[3] Flying in the face, and possibly disapproving (if a sample size of 1 is enough refutation) that idiotic report a few months ago that people stop discovering new music by their mid-thirties.

[4] My middle-aged arrogance, however ….


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