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McMurtry’s music is usually classified as ‘Americana;’ it’s at turns jagged and raucous, and at others deliberative and wistful. . . . McMurtry’s unassuming vocal style and stage presence bring to the foreground the voices populating his songs.
—New York Times Magazine
James McMurtry spins stories with a poet’s pen (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter’s precision (“She Loves Me”). The acclaimed songwriter’s new album Complicated Game is McMurtry’s first collection in six years, spotlighting a craftsman in absolutely peak form as he turns from political toward personal (“These Things I’ve Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”).
“The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world versus the poor little farmer or fisherman. I never make a conscious decision about what to write about.” Complicated Game delivers McMurtry’s trademark story songs time and again (“Copper Canteen,” “Deaver’s Crossing”), but the record brings a new (and certainly no less energetic) sonic approach. First, recall blistering beats and gnashing guitars from his magnum opus Just Us Kids (2008). Now, unplug. “The label head wanted more acoustic,” McMurtry explains. “We built everything as we went so we ended up with more acoustic guitar as we went. We just played whatever sounded right for a given song, but we weren’t necessarily saying this is an acoustic record.”
Such vibrant vignettes consistently turn heads. They have for a quarter century now. Clearly, he’s only improving with time. “James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he’s working at the top of his game,” says Americana all-star Jason Isbell. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.” “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime,” echoes iconic roots rocker John Mellencamp.
McMurtry’s Just Us Kids (2008) earned his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Meanwhile, Childish Things (2005) scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Childish Things won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year, and “We Can’t Make It Here” was named the rapidly rising organization’s Song of the Year.
McMurtry tours year-round and consistently delivers unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: “Much attention is paid to James McMurtry’s lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player . . . serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band.”