Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 17, 2014
Butch Hancock, James McMurtry, Kevin Russell: Texas songwriters all, indeed. But their Texas Songwriters’ Circle show at the Stateside on Friday night, with a second show to follow tonight, revealed more about their differences than their common ground.
As each musician played a song for six rounds down the line – first Russell, then Hancock, then McMurtry – different shades of their personalities arose. Russell kicked things off a cappella with Lead Belly’s "We’re in the Same Boat, Brother," a staple of his new band Shinyribs’ repertoire, showing his soulful side and striking a communal vibe at the outset.
Same boat, perhaps, but the view was different depending on which direction you were looking on the horizon. Hancock steered toward the dusty West Texas country-folk for which he is best known, favoring relatively newer material with "Pine Cone" and "Bare Footprints."
McMurtry went more for classic tunes for which he is well known, most notably "St. Mary of the Woods" and the 13-minute "Choctaw Bingo." Where Hancock favored existential reflections, McMurtry turned down darker avenues.
McMurtry’s explorations led the three compadres to find a bit of solidarity in deep country blues. When Russell played "Tequila" (which cribs the melody of Waylon & Willie’s "Good Hearted Woman"), Hancock took a harmonica solo, followed by a McMurtry guitar lead. In turn, Russell joined on electric guitar when Hancock pulled out his "Road Map for the Blues."
Each songwriter saved his best for the last round. Russell’s magical "Steeple Full of Swallows" was a heartstopping moment, the stage lights fittingly turned down to match the song’s key line: "You must be the reason, all the lights go down." Hancock had a trump card, pulling out "If You Were a Bluebird," arguably THE Texas songwriter song of the past half-century. And McMurtry struck a perfect closing tone with "Levelland," which he jokingly described as "a Robert Earl Keen song that I wrote," referring to Keen’s well-known cover of the tune.
Ragged group renditions of Bob Dylan’s "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues" and the Ray Price hit "Crazy Arms" were more denouement than grand finale. Perhaps tunes by Townes Van Zandt or Willie Nelson might have made for a stronger finish – although there’s always the Saturday show, which they hinted could well include a very different round of material. "I’d invite you back tomorrow," Hancock noted, "but it’s sold out!"