Austin's James McMurtry writes songs with the richness of novels, his characters struggling through life's trials in vignettes sculpted as vividly as the world in front of your eyes.
At 53, the celebrated songwriter remarkably is turning better with age, with his latest record, Complicated Game, garnering some of the best reviews of McMurtry's career. It's an album that revolves around relationships, a dense and thoughtful batch of songs that finds its characters in an array of familiar moods: hopeful, spiteful, perseverant, patient, thankful, and ornery.
"The songs that I managed to get in time to make the record seem to be about relationships. The producer didn't want to mess with political songs. Everybody loves women. Everybody hates politics, so get away from that," says McMurtry, whose best-known song, 2005's "We Can't Make It Here," chronicled the miseries that George W. Bush's failures inflicted on the country.
Complicated Game is filled with sharply observant story songs like "These Things I've Come to Know," "How'm I Gonna Find You Now" and "You Got To Me," and McMurtry says changes in the music industry have him focused on touring more than ever.
"We used to tour to promote record sales, and now we make records to promote tour dates," he says.
"Ain't Got a Place" is one from the new set that snuck up on McMurtry, an exception to his songwriting process in that he finished it in one sitting in New Orleans.
"That song came from being just about the right mix of being drunk and pissed off. If you're like that, you can write a great song, but you have to do it real quick. That's the only song I ever wrote start to finish in 15 minutes," he says. "I went upstairs to the hotel room, and I just started playing with opposites — up/down, east/west — and that song sort of just came out. It's kind of like a Guy Clark song."
For Complicated Game, McMurtry stepped away from self-producing, as he did on 2005's Childish Things and 2008's Just Us Kids, to work with producers C.C. Adcock and Mike Napolitano.
The record took about a year to make. After tracking a bit at a time, McMurtry would head back out on tour, leaving Adcock and Napolitano to flesh out his guitar and vocal tracks with guest musicians, including piano and organ from Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, vocals from Ivan Neville, and banjo from McMurtry's son Curtis, a songwriter in his own right.
"There were a couple more fast tracks that just didn't make the cut," McMurtry says. "It really works as a record. But as a live set, you can't do that whole record in a bar. You have to mix it up with old stuff. Three or four of those ballads in a row, and they're ready for something rocking."
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Those rocking tunes mixed in with other songs on Complicated Games are fan favorites that span more than 25 years, including an expanded "Choctaw Bingo" that now stretches to 12 minutes.
"I wrote that song as a writing exercise," McMurtry says of the 2002 hit. "For a while there, every tour seemed to either start or end going up Highway 69 in Oklahoma, which is interesting because we never played Oklahoma in those days. But there were all these weird signs along the highway, 'Pop's Knife and Gun Place.' Within a year of writing the song, most of that stuff had disappeared."