Despite what certain music snobs may have you believe, it’s OK not to know every piece of music known to man by every single one of the greatest artists of our time and before. Very few of us came out of the womb listening to Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt. Very few still can even tell you who they are.
No, if anything, it’s easy in circles like these – of the independent country, folk, and Americana varieties, that is – to lose sight of the fact that several of our favorite underground artists are just that – underground. They aren’t meant to appeal to a mass audience and likely never will. So it’s OK if someone takes a deep-dive into an artist’s discography later on in life … or doesn’t at all. There’s no such thing as good or bad taste or objective criticism, after all. As always, we should encourage discovery; not force it.
I guess what I’m saying is, despite James McMurtry being one of music’s best-kept secrets for over 30 years, I get why he’s never broken through beyond some well-deserved critical acclaim. He crafts stories that are vivid but also dense; he creates characters we aren’t meant to like but relate to nonetheless; he’ll drag on if it means doing so for the sake of the song; and he releases new music these days at a snail’s pace. What’s separated him from the league of Texas poets, however, is that he can rock with the best of them … which is why I’ve always found it ironic that my first exposure to him was through 2015’s Complicated Game, a mostly stripped-down, acoustic album that was tempered and more mature than previous offerings.
Finding that album came in part, for me, as a way of opening the floodgates to artists beyond my local radio dial that year, and while I made many discoveries during that time, McMurtry and Complicated Game both stuck with me like very few others did. I didn’t care about the length of the stories because I was hanging on to every word, and when I dug into the rest of his discography the next year, I was further hooked. His ‘90s work is all consistently excellent with some real gems in his debut, Too Long in the Wasteland – from 1989, but I’m counting it anyway – and 1997’s It Had to Happen, both of which leaned dark and heavy in their compositions and stories. He found greater exposure 16 years after that debut through 2005’s Childish Things, if only for “We Can’t Make It Here,” hailed by many critics as one of the best songs of that entire decade.
Sadly, he pretty much disappeared after 2008’s Just Us Kids, until the aforementioned Complicated Game came along. He’s now set to release his newest album later this month. So for my third edition of this series, I want to frame this a little differently – to encourage folks to take a deep-dive into one of the finest songwriters working today (if they haven’t already), just as I did in 2015. It’s out of character for me to outright recommend artists or albums or songs, but after digging back through McMurtry’s discography in preparation for this, it wouldn’t feel right to frame as anything but that. Here are 15 of my favorite songs by him. Anyway, onward!
No. 15, “Be With Me” (written by James McMurtry)
James McMurtry often writes about the artistic process in ways that reveal more about the audience consuming the art than it does about the people that make it, and this is quietly one of his best examples. Here, he examines the relationship between artist and fan and how far the latter is willing to take idol worship … even if it means potentially harming the person that changed our lives, because they owe us even more than they could ever imagine. It’s a slow-burn of a track that’s strangely even more timely today than it was then, and with that slow-coarsing groove to carry it along, it’s one of McMurtry’s darkest.
No. 14, “Where’s Johnny” (written by James McMurtry)
Of course, there’s the artistic process, and then there’s just normal, everyday life and the story of our title hero destined for big things. Only, he doesn’t live up to the stereotypical myths written about him, and what I love about the punchline is the framing. Johnny didn’t fall victim to alcoholism or some other plot device; he simply wanted to live life on his own terms and openly dejects his chosen path as a result of anything beyond that. It’s a story where the actual story doesn’t play out the way it’s supposed to, and that it’s still a genuinely upbeat track by its end shows that ol’ Johnny is just fine, even if everyone around will never recover from what could have been.
No. 13, “Memorial Day” / “Holiday” (both written by James McMurtry)
I’m cheating, I know, but these two tracks (featured on McMurtry’s 2005 Childish Things album) really do work best when viewed as one. Simply put, it’s the story of Memorial Day, the former a tongue-in-cheek look at how people always miss the point about why we celebrate holidays we don’t enjoy anyway when we’re too busy celebrating them the “right” way – with family. And while the former is a joy to hear, especially with that fiddle, it’s the latter that really grounds the former point home, in that we celebrate a holiday like Memorial Day for people who can’t celebrate it themselves. It’s what makes that final verse of a soldier’s perspective all the more damning of the main story that focuses on a family get-together where no one can stand each other. It’s meant to be uncomfortable for all of us, and it’s meant to sting.
No. 12, “Jaws of Life” (written by James McMurtry)
McMurtry has often stated that his stories are meant to be taken as just that and never meant to offer an insight into his personal psyche (or something to that effect). So when we have the version of “Where’s Johnny” meant to be more relatable to us all – and with one of McMurtry’s most textured grooves, at that – it’s easy to see how the potentially personal becomes the universal. And as the closing track off of 1997’s excellent It Had to Happen, “Jaws of Life” doesn’t really serve to offer happy or bitter endings, but rather just that sad natural cycle of how life takes its toll on us. If there’s anything more to it, it’s about trying to escape the mundanity of it and finding a passion that makes escaping the jaws of life worth it to enough to try, even if we stumble and end back at square one to repeat the process sometimes. In other words, it’s a reminder of how often we fear actually living more than meeting that uneventful end.
No. 11, “Sixty Acres” (written by James McMurtry)
Oh, this is only the beginning of McMurtry’s fun songs. And let’s make this clear: McMurtry doesn’t often make likable characters, but he’ll make you see their perspectives anyway, such as an ungrateful grandson unsatisfied by his parting gift from his obviously rich-as-hell grandmother. And beyond the shock value of just all she leaves this family and his subsequent reactions to it, this song features one of McMurtry’s most excellently ramshackled and darkest grooves that only intensifies with seething anger and disbelief as the song progresses. In other words, it’s a hoot and a half, especially with its numerous golden one-liners. “Glory, glory. Hallelujah,” indeed.
No. 10, “Out Here in the Middle” (written by James McMurtry)
Well, even if McMurtry has never exclusively been billed as a country artist, he sure knows how to tackle one of the genre’s most infuriatingly miscalculated themes with ease. That, of course, being the divide between country and city life, where instead of opting for the tired “us versus them” approach, McMurtry despondently tries to play up rural life to little avail in order to win back over an old flame who’s moved on to something bigger. It’s a surprisingly sad song that waits to reveal itself until that hook, and if there’s a reason it’s resonated as one of his most well-known, it’s because that feeling of missing someone and wishing they were back home, even if it’s only best for us and not them, is universal. He convinced me to stay, at least.
No. 9, “Too Long in the Wasteland” (written by James McMurtry)
Personal or not, McMurtry’s stories have, at the very least, traditionally been grounded in realism with heavy stakes behind them. But there’s always been something alluring about this early cut, a literal mind-warp caused by a man haunted by an apparition in the desert that he may or may not have known in another time. And while the ending suggests he went to join it in that haunted wasteland, the real meat of the song is the progression, from the thicker bass strumming in the low-end to the snake-like percussion and that tremendous crescendo that does its very best to add to the nightmare. The live version of this on McMurtry’s Live in Aught-Three trades all of that in for something slower and arguably more sinister and heavier, but there’s something about the rapid-fire approach here I’ll always connect with most.
No. 8, “Long Island Sound” (written by James McMurtry)
If there’s any evidence that McMurtry is still the excellent poet he’s always been, it’s this song. One of his more oddly upbeat tracks, “Long Island Sound” still has its share of melancholy attached to it – the tale of a character who moves from the country to the city and finds that life mostly improves. He’s got a good job and has left his heritage behind, which was never that likable anyway. And yet, he thinks about the people left behind, too, especially one significant other he wishes found the same happiness in life he did. It’s the story of finding the courage to move ahead and forward, and when those Uilleann pipes cry out, it leads to one of McMurtry’s most potent moments on record.
No. 7, “Ruby and Carlos” (written by James McMurtry)
And on the flip side to “Long Island Sound,” we have another long-distance relationship to witness – one where happiness isn’t found but rather lost in pursuit of it. And this plaintive acoustic ballad carries a lot of weight for something so intimate, the disillusionment between two lovers who drift apart so that one can pursue his musical aspirations while the other stays behind to barely make ends meet herself. Suffice it to say without spoiling it, there’s no happy ending, and it’s a song that tests the motivation to chase a dream when there’s no one to share it with, and what would come of it anyway. Heartbreaking in its poignancy, especially in the faint violin touches later on, this is an example of how much farther McMurtry is willing to go with his stories in details and length these days to serve the sake of the song.
No. 6, “Lights of Cheyenne” (written by James McMurtry and Ronnie Johnson)
It’s worth noting that McMurtry’s Live in Aught Three is a top five live album of all time, so much so that this isn’t even the only track from it on this list. Still, I will always wish that McMurtry eventually records this for a proper studio album, because it’s another drawn-out, heartbreaking story song in the vein of “Ruby & Carlos” that lifts its emotional punch from its words rather than its presentation. It’s another song about dreams, but ones that never materialize and are used more as coping mechanisms to survive each day for an abused character so disillusioned with life from a dead-end turn, that the ending is easy to see as the song progresses, but still doesn’t hit any less harder. It’s a brutal song that doesn’t invite sympathy and empathy so much as requires it from the audience, and it’s quietly among McMurtry’s best.
No. 5, “Childish Things” (written by James McMurtry)
Scattered as his later projects are in actual timing and release, there’s been a running theme between McMurtry’s last three or so studio albums about maturation and tempering flames that used to run wild. It’s what made the intimate nature of Complicated Game work, and it’s what made the last moments of reckless abandon on Just Us Kids work. And as arguably the start of that running theme, “Childish Things” is simply about getting the process started, which is easier said than done when the innocence we carry as children clouds over the real responsibilities and realities that come with being adults. One of my favorite details is how in the first verse, McMurtry, as a child, is told that he’ll eventually stop believing in ghosts but still believe in Heaven, only for the final verse to flip it around, because while it’s a required process of all of us, it’s never as simple as it seems. It’s still somber in its subtext, which essentially details how growing older means losing those passions that fueled our earliest years in favor of a life that’s slower and more predictable … not that that’s always bad when you can watch those childish things come alive again through your own children. It’s one of McMurtry’s best melodies and hooks – lyrical or instrumental, and, 16 years after his debut, an example of how letting those childish things go isn’t always a bad thing.
No. 4, “We Can’t Make It Here” (written by James McMurtry)
So, here’s the thing – If you want to make a good political song – because there have been a lot of bad ones in recent years – you have to speak with the people and not down to them. That’s a sentiment that will resonate beyond one’s own beliefs. Case in point: McMurtry’s seven-minute long frenzy that speaks to both the Clinton and Bush years that hammers each of its points with ferocious intensity and unleashes pent-up anger that McMurtry’s traditionally more straight-laced delivery is better well-suited for than expected. And though this anger stems from lost United States jobs overseas, it’s not directed at the people who have the jobs, but rather than politicians who implemented the policies that caused it all. And because it’s McMurtry, that title takes on multiple meanings, from literally being unable to make products anymore to being unable to survive in a town these characters have lived in all of their lives. It’s simply one of McMurtry’s most well-developed songs not just in its story, but in its composition, too – from that thumping groove to the crescendos that damn-near echo backing vocals that sound more like screams for help than anything else. There are certain adjectives used for these exercises that automatically feel like detours into hyperbole, but there’s no other word to describe this powerful statement as anything other than righteous. And though the timing will always date it to an extent, the anger felt by the common people is a timeless sentiment.
No. 3, “Levelland” (written by James McMurtry)
This is, simply put, McMurtry’s most anthemic song to date, and it’s an anthem for two kinds of people – the people that would dare choose to stay in their hometown out of cultural heritage and respect, and the ones who understand that yet don’t fit in anyway and want something more. And therein lies the complexity for McMurtry’s ode to a desolate town in west Texas and his simultaneous respect for that history and his desperate need to escape. He’s young and simply doesn’t fit in with the slower pace. He wants to create his own history, and it’s another example of how McMurtry can weave compelling cases from multiple perspectives and yet ultimately come to his own conclusion without painting it as the right one; it’s just the right one for him. And if there was ever a moment this Texas poet got to become an arena rock star legend, this has the bones for it in its multiple fantastic solos that ground so much of its natural potency. It’s one of his most well-known and beloved songs, and it’s easy to see why.
No. 2, “Rachel’s Song” (written by James McMurtry)
Of every song here, this is the one that just gets to me and knocks me out every time I listen to it, the story of a single mother’s slow mental deterioration as she raises a son that constantly reminds her of the partner that abandoned both of them, resulting in her own alcoholism that nearly kills them both. The happy ending is always the one you want, but here, the more relatable one comes to fruition, and, if nothing else, reflects the struggles and balancing acts that come with raising a child on one’s own. McMurtry’s absolute best songs know how to pair excellent stories with equally stunning compositions, and this one is unlike anything he’s done before – a hazy, atmospheric low-end, where the percussion shuffles rapidly against those echoed guitar fragments to craft something so stark and lonely … yet also offer a mind-warp that speaks to Rachel’s own scattered thoughts, with a brutal open-ended finish for her next move. Often you can laugh at or with McMurtry’s characters, but there’s also plenty of times you can sympathize or empathize with them, too. Rachel is the singular one who has always roared the loudest because of that.
And before we get to my No. 1 pick, let’s take a look at some honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:
“Bayou Tortous” (written by James McMurtry)
“No More Buffalo” (written by James McMurtry)
“I’m Not From Here” (written by James McMurtry)
“Crazy Wind” (written by James McMurtry)
“Vague Directions” (written by James McMurtry)
“Peter Pan” (written by James McMurtry)
“How’m I Gonna Find You Now?” (written by James McMurtry)
No. 1, “Choctaw Bingo” (live) (written by James McMurtry)
I mean, anyone even remotely familiar with McMurtry’s discography had to have known this was coming. It’s a case where the consensus pick is absolutely the right one, a behemoth of a story song that adopts the same fantastic progression strategy as “We Can’t Make It Here,” only for something far less serious – the most fucked-up family reunion ever. It’s loaded with offhanded quick wit, a song that sees a family gather in heavy meth-fueled country on the highway to destruction. And it’s loaded with so many discussion points that it’s almost easy to overlook some of the smaller subpoints in nearly every line. Which, suffice it to say, means it’s a song that should really just be heard – no, experienced – before it’s discussed, but for as disgusting as it all is … again, McMurtry does know how to make his characters relatable, if unlikable. It’s every stereotype of southern culture blown up to 11 without taking itself that seriously, even if there’s a lot of truth to what it says, too. Even beyond that, if there’s a version I’m including here, it’s the Live in Aught Three one, which is far grittier and looser, even if the original studio version is just as fine. But really, if you’re going to start with one, make it the live version. It’s not a song for everyone, but if there’s a song that perfectly defines McMurtry’s essence as a songwriter and storyteller, it’s this one.