Perambulatory Poetry: James McMurty's "Complicated Game"

Perhaps the true journey of discovery consists not in seeking different landscapes, but in having new eyes.

James McMurtry's new eyes routinely fill notebook and notebook with scenes, characters, ideas, hopes, and disappointments. For three decades, he has persisted in his writing and recording, seamlessly merging rock, country and folk.

Complicated Game, McMurtry's first studio album in six years, is a snapshot insight into his ventures beneath the American skies. Similar to rich mineral water that seeps up through the strata to surface, McMurtry's glimmering ideas seep through the mind and heart in an indispensably primed body of work. Some of the vibrant vignettes:

So little we save between the grandparents' graves and the grandchildren's toys. - "Copper Canteen"

We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens. - "Copper Canteen"

We're gathered here like drifted wrecks for a late September wedding. October breathing down our necks. - "You Got to Me"

Photo courtesy James McMurtry

Complicated Game is a 12-track collection of perambulatory poetry, subtly pushing us to be aware of. We believe in the lightness and shadows in the lyrics, the good, the bad, and the balance that is the balance of life.

When we hear, "Ain't Got A Place," - first sung by McMurtry into an iphone in the Mississippi Suite above the R Bar on Royal Street in New Orleans - we know he is longing for what he won't ever find. He will never retrieve the past and all of the people and places lost.

It's all provocative, pure, and, well, quintessentially Americana - whatever that is.

"Americana is a label meant for people who couldn't get marketed anymore because of the radio format," said McMurtry. "It is broad, it's where I'm at, and I'm not religious about the label. In the old days, I was in the rock section because you could find it. One time I was playing at the Bottom Line and I walked over to Tower Records to find Candyland (1992). My name was there on a card, misspelled, 'McMurty'. I called Columbia to see if they could get any records over there. After the show, it was in the rock section, after Don McLean, same card with name misspelled."

No matter how you categorize it, Complicated Game makes us mourn the loss of regional independence, the quirks of local dialect, attitudes and occupations.

McMurtry formulated the opening song "Copper Canteen" after playing the Steel Bridge Songfest, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The annual June event benefits an old steel drawbridge that got caught part of the way down and needed fixing and constant maintenance. It was the first time he ever heard the term 'bridge tender,' the guy who makes the drawbridge go up and down. That word became the genesis of the whole song.

"I guess that it's all pretty uniform," said McMurtry. "There are some traces of regional culture, though. Like in Wisconsin, with the 'bridge tender' thing and they say, 'stop and go lights,' with a Fargo-sounding accent. I do like to wander around a place if the time is right. If I can time it right I can get there at 3 in the afternoon, which gives me an hour or two before the sound check and then the show. I try to find a good wine bar and look for places with good wine selections or cultural cuisine from the local food vendors. I guess you don't have to stop and eat whatever is being delivered off the Sysco truck."

Photo courtesy James McMurtry

McMurtry's characters - primarily soldiers, ranchers, fishermen and farmers - urgently leap to life as hard-working underdogs living on the simple, down-to-earth ladder of the social system. Call it his obligation. He owes them to give voice to their stories. His is a show of solidarity.

His stories and scenes offer a modulation of tone and content, sometimes smoothly and sometimes jarringly negotiated so that we will trust and so that we will feel moved to laugh or smirk or empathize. "Carlisle's Haul" is heavy with the descriptions and jargon of the Maryland and Virginia small-time fishing industry.

String of croaker for the Sunday meal
String of croaker makes a meal

"That was back in the days when crabbers were paid in fish," said McMurtry. "I don't know if that culture still exists."

"Deaver's Crossing," a fictionalized account of some people who used to farm in western Virginia near a place McMurtry onced fish for native brook trout.

He was there through the darkest nights
The gypsy moth and the chestnut blight
The market crash and the teapot dome
He was there when the boys came home

McMurtry, the magician, instructs his characters to breathe on their own. What's his secret to songwriting? Randomness, perhaps. Before he recently purchased a laptop, his songwriting process mixed bits and pieces of paper and notes found on legal pads. He'd sift through his notes and match up random verses. Recorded in New Orleans, Complicated Game is heavily acoustic-based and McMurtry wrote most of the songs in the last two years.

Most of McMurty's previous work has been self-produced, but Complicated Game was a collaborative effort, which allowed him to tone up ideas and evolve into something better, more creative, and more robust.

"I'm proud of it and proud that I didn't produce it on my own," said McMurtry. "I produced the past 4, 5 albums and I was repeating myself. I wasn't going to do another James McMurtry record. This one took me places and I didn't know where it was going. I had no expectations. My singing is a little better thanks to my vocal coach, David Forman. With his Long Island accent, he worked on my posture and got me sticking in my gut. Just one old fat guy teaching another old fat guy to sing better.

"I did the album and the tracks piecemeal over six years. As a musician today, you can't afford to stop and make a record. You've got no income. For me, it's important not to over-record. I think one song didn't make the record. I'm not that prolific."

In the song "South Dakota," McMurtry found it fitting that the protagonist was a soldier.

"It's for all the ranching people I know," said McMurtry. "When you go through the small towns it seems as if you always see welcome home signs for soldiers. There are not so many jobs in the county, so it's the military."

"Long Island Sound" is a tenderhearted, jaunty sliver that came to McMurtry after the GPS in his vehicle mistakenly stranded him along the Whitestone Bridge instead of the Throgs Neck Bridge, during rush hour. The final product provides more than just a rush of mirth and sentimentality, it delivers a sparkling moment gratifyingly pleasurable.

Essentially, music - recorded or live - is the practice of faith. There are the religious qualities of creativity, surrender, trust.

"It's best not to over-think the live performance and believe it'll go right," said McMurtry. "It's better to be a little nervous, because it keeps you alert. If you are too comfortable you'll fall asleep and put everyone else to sleep."

The concept of what propels an artist leaves us with a mystery. Regimented as it may seem at times, McMurtry's work has a meaning and an order. At 53, he has no deep, philosophical connection of his destiny. He plays music. He wanders towns with his pen and notebook. If he's lucky, he stops long enough to have a drink. If he's even luckier, he'll sing something that someone feels that they ought to be hearing.

"We do what do," said McMurtry. "We don't need to be loved, but we all want to be remembered, right?"

Brian D'Ambrosio's latest book, the positively acclaimed Life in the Trenches, offers 37 narratives and stories of modern day trench warriors -- including Mississippi-born boxer turned musician Paul Thorn; a Bronx-born comic who switched from a favorite of the Black Panthers to a conservative spokesman (Jimmie Walker); a boxer who spiraled from the mountaintop into homelessness (Iran Barkley); Greco-Roman wrestler and MMA forefather from the Midwest (Dan "The Beast" Severn); entertainment wrestlers so convincing as villains that they repeatedly put their own lives in danger (Ivan Koloff, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper).