TVD Live: James McMurtry at The Birchmere, 2/21

The stage couldn’t be much more bare than it was for James McMurtry’s return visit to The Birchmere music hall. A couple of guitars, a table with a bottle of water and that’s it.

McMurtry’s songs as well are often as stark, painting indelible scenes of domestic impasse, bleak pictures of heartland economic woe, and wistful observations about the human condition. The son of novelist Larry McMurtry has equal literary prowess, only applying them to the meter and melody of acoustic music. He sets a scene, introduces character, and defines it in a word or phrase.

He enters like the associate professor too old for this stuff; a fedora now instead of a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. His shirt is loose to accommodate maximum movement on his guitar. He began with a six-string that set a spare tone to the songs, but switched for most of the show to a 12-string, setting off cathedral-like crescendos in his soloing. It also meant he had to stop and tune all 18 strings from time to time, filling in with patter as deadpan as his songs, or in one case suggesting the crowd talk amongst themselves while he attended to the business.

With the sparse writing style of a less-kind John Prine, and moody tunefulness of Townes Van Zandt, McMurtry hasn’t had a new release for a while. Since his 2015 Complicated Game, he’s only issued a couple of tunes online, reflecting family political standoffs accurately in the 2017 “State of the Union” describing a brother. “He don’t like the Muslims, he don’t like the Jews / He don’t like the Blacks and he don’t trust the news / He hates the Hispanics and alternative views / He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white.”

A sister goes to church “with a cross on her neck and a nine in her purse.” And the protagonist fights at family get-togethers. “Christmas dinner might be hell to pay.”

It’s like a lot of family dynamics in McMurtry songs, but not all of them. Take the guy in “Long Island Sound,” stuck in traffic on the Cross Island Parkway, looking out at the sailboats in the water, thinking of a lost love, but embracing all he has in the East in an imaginary toast: “Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers.”

It was one of about seven songs from Complicated Game, which dominated half the modest set. But it’s also a very strong album, with songs like “Ain’t Got a Place,” “Copper Canteen,” and “These Things I’ve Come to Know.”

As Texas as McMurtry seems, he noted that another of the songs from that album, “Carlisle’s Haul,” came from an illegal fishing experience just up the Potomac, which he saw below him that day as he flew in. Though born in Ft. Worth, McMurtry did most of his growing up down in Leesburg, VA, before returning to Texas as a young man.

That wasn’t the only reason his well-honed deadpan observations cut so deep. Of his nine previous albums, he had quite a pick of his old classics to do. This time around, he chose “Choctaw Bingo,” “Red Dress,” “Peter Pan,” and “No More Buffalo.” The oldest was the still powerful “Levellands” from his 1995 Where’d You Hide the Body, his last album on a major label. That meant no time though for earlier greats like “Too Long in the Wasteland,” “Where’s Johnny,” and “Painting by Numbers,” his only single to barely chart in 1989.

The grumpiness he wears as an onstage persona didn’t always help the show — he didn’t come out to do an encore after just 15 songs.

Opening the show was quite the opposite singer than McMurtry. Instead of intense and clipped, Bonnie Whitmore was melodic before she barreled into a scream that made microphones obsolete. Her cries were about sexual assault told in a few of her newer songs.

It was her song “[email protected] with Sad Girls” that caught the attention of McMurtry, she said. Sister of Eleanor Whitmore of The Mastersons and most recently a member of Hayes Carll’s band, Bonnie Whitmore had at least a similar approach to honesty in songs as the headliner, but just a very different way of delivering it.

Saint Mary of the Woods
Red Dress
Copper Canteen
You Got to Me
I Ain’t Got a Place
These Things I’ve Come to Know
Choctaw Bingo
Hurricane Party
How’m I Gonna Find You Now
Long Island Sound
No More Buffalo
Carlisle’s Haul
State of the Union
Peter Pan

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