It’s just past 9 p.m. at the Continental Gallery, a listening room upstairs from South Congress’ venerable Continental Club. James McMurtry is holding court with an acoustic guitar, as he does every Tuesday, and he pauses between songs to impart a peculiar nugget of wisdom.
"If you think you’re profound as a songwriter," he says, "just consider the line, ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ "
He refrains from launching into Hoyt Axton’s classic "Joy to the World," a tune that hardly fits the image of a songwriter best known for dark stories about desperate characters. But perhaps a little joy is shining through the cracks in McMurtry’s world these days, judging from a cursory look at "Complicated Game," his first new album in seven years.
First, there’s a song called "She Loves Me," a declaration McMurtry sings out with disarming brightness in the chorus. "Yeah, but it was an ironic title," he cautions, and a closer examination reveals the deception: "I hear she has another, I hear she likes him well / I won’t be home till Christmas, they’ll be at it for a spell."
OK then, let’s move on to "These Things I’ve Come to Know." The song’s subject may have a tough exterior — "She can back down a drunk and run him out of the bar" — but the narrator clearly expresses affection for her.
"That one’s more of a love song," McMurtry confesses. "I haven’t really mined that territory, so I might as well. I can’t be distant forever."
And then there’s this surprising line in "Long Island Sound," which for the most part is a textbook McMurtry working-man character study: "The company’s not bad as the companies go/ They’ve still got the health plan and they’re raising my pay." It’s a conspicuously optimistic sentiment for a guy who made waves a decade ago with a song about American disillusionment called "We Can’t Make It Here."
Is McMurtry now looking on the bright side of the national condition? Well, not exactly. "I’m just hoping there are exceptions to the rule," he says. "I made that up for the sake of the song. But part of it was also to focus your attention on the fact that those things matter."
So if there are glimmers of a better world on "Complicated Game," understand that McMurtry hasn’t exactly grown content. That’s clear enough from "Carlisle’s Haul," a vivid seven-minute portrait of fishermen skirting the limits of the law in a struggle to make ends meet. "We gather round and we hold out hope," he sings, "because at the end of the rope, there’s a little more rope most times."
"That’s from the point of view of a young kid in a commercial fishing town, listening to the crabbers cuss the government about all the regulations," McMurtry says. "Well, you know, I happen to think we need regulations or we’re not going to have fisheries. But if I were trying to make my living doing what they did, I might have a different opinion. I might be inclined to overfish, or off-season fish, that kind of thing."
This gets to the heart of McMurtry’s philosophy as a songwriter: He’s all about inhabiting his characters to serve his art. "My job is to write the best song possible," he says. "I tend to write from characters who don’t necessarily agree with me. And if I have to stay in character, and the character’s a libertarian, I’ve got to do that, even though it’s going to be sung in my voice and people are going to think I’m a libertarian."
We’re on this train of thought, as we sit at the bar of Enoteca on South Congress, partly because I asked McMurtry to expound upon an earlier offhand comment that "I got lucky with ‘We Can’t Make It Here.’ " Whether it was luck or just being really good at what he does, that song was a major breakthrough for McMurtry. Touching on veterans’ issues, the rise of Walmart, credit card debt, a stagnant minimum wage and more, the song struck a chord in the depths of the George W. Bush years.
"We Can’t Make It Here" won Song of the Year honors at the 2006 Americana Music Association Awards, beating out tracks by the Dixie Chicks, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. Esteemed rock critic Robert Christgau put it at No. 1 on his list of the best songs of the decade. And when members of the Occupy movement put together an album in 2012, protest-music icons Joan Baez and Steve Earle were recruited to join McMurtry on a re-recording of the song.
That’s a lot of luck. "Well, it made my point and was still an OK song," McMurtry says, trying to explain his assessment. "Usually, if you try to make a point, you’re going to write a sermon." It’s true, indeed, that the magic of "We Can’t Make It Here" was that it felt more documentary than didactic.
It also set McMurtry up for a role that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. "For a minute there, I was supposed to be the protest writer," he recalls. "I didn’t really fit the mold very well. I wrote a couple of pretty cool songs, but most of my writing, I try to weave social commentary and politics into the song, but not make it the absolute focus. Because when you do that, you risk being on a soapbox and being a preacher. And nobody wants to hear you preach. They want to hear you sing."
In Austin, they want to hear him sing on Tuesday evenings upstairs at the Continental Gallery, but when he plays late on Wednesday nights downstairs at the Continental Club, they want to hear him rock. McMurtry has held the Wednesday residency with his band — which includes bassist Cornbread and drummer Daren Hess, and more recently guitarist Tim Holt at times — since 2002. He added the acoustic Tuesday residency not long after the Gallery opened a few years ago.
"They keep your chops up; you don’t really have to rehearse because you come in once a week and do this thing," McMurtry says. "We do a lot of new songs after 1 a.m. on Wednesdays, when the crowd kind of thins out and it’s just the die-hards."
Adding the Gallery show a few years ago has been helpful beyond simply another reliable source of income. "The Tuesday night show warms my vocals up for Wednesday night," he says. "I don’t have to work as hard on keeping in good voice that way."
Mostly, McMurtry says, the two shows "have different crowds, the acoustic crowd and the rock ’n’ roll crowd. There’s some overlap, but there are people who will only go to one or the other."
Continental owner Steve Wertheimer says McMurtry has become a big part of the club’s identity over the past decade. "It’s pretty cool having that guy there on a weekly basis," Wertheimer says. "He does tour occasionally, but he’s pretty good about trying to make it back each week for that Tuesday and Wednesday. He’s as big a part of what’s going on at the club as Toni Price, Jon Dee Graham, Heybale and the others. It’s his home."
Austin at large has been home to McMurtry since his auspicious debut album "Too Long in the Wasteland" surfaced on Columbia Records in 1989, not long after John Mellencamp first heard him after working on a project with James’ father, author Larry McMurtry. A dozen albums later, he’s still here, as is his now fully grown son Curtis, who’s been making waves of his own as a budding songwriter recently.
When the two teamed up in December to take part in a family-themed show at Strange Brew, it almost seemed as if James was deferring to his son’s talents. "He’s got a music comp degree, and that’s why it’s so scary to be onstage with him, because he’s got so much more knowledge of intervals and chords," James says. "I’m basically 1-4-5 (chords) with a relative minor; my stuff’s pretty simple. There might be some intricate note-for-note work, but the overall structure is pretty simple. And his can get complex. As can his lyrics."
For his part, Curtis holds his father’s accomplishments in high regard. "Everything he does — guitar, singing and writing — had a huge influence on me as a musician and affected what I look for and appreciate about music," Curtis says. "There was a period in middle school and high school where I really only listened to my dad and music he told me to listen to."
Asked about specific lessons he learned from his father, Curtis points to a detail that illuminates one of the keys to James’ success: "If you’re proud of your lyrics, enunciate when you sing. Make sure you can be understood no matter what else is going on musically."
Back at the Continental Gallery, the Tuesday crowd has grown a little chatty after a few songs; McMurtry doesn’t seem to mind, as he knows it’s up to him to reel them back in. He casts out "Hurricane Party," a standout from 2008’s "Just Us Kids," and a few lines in, the audience is hooked.
The room is dead silent as McMurtry gets to the heart of the matter. "Just a fleeting sense of that rare suspense I once thought made the world go round," he sings. "But now there’s no one to talk to when the lines go down."
It’s a story, not a sermon: As McMurtry says, nobody wants to hear him preach. But they sure do want to hear him sing.