No stranger to Tucson, McMurtry attended the UA for a time in the 1980s, while his father, Pullitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, splits his time between Texas and Tucson.
At 54, James McMurtry remarkably is turning better with age, with Complicated Game garnering some of the best reviews of the celebrated songwriter’s career. It’s a record 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 (released last February on the label of the same name) is filled with sharply observant story songs like "Copper Canteen," “These Things I’ve Come to Know” and “You Got to Me,” but 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.
A road warrior, McMurtry says he tends to start songs on the road and finish them at home when there’s more time.
“It’s the way I pretty much always write songs, I get a couple lines and a melody and then ask ‘Who said that?’ I can envision a character who said those lines and from the character I can think of a story. It’s all fiction. There may be snatches of reality but I make these people up,” he says.
“Ain’t Got A Place” is one from the new set that snuck up on McMurtry, a rare song finished in one sitting. After arriving in New Orleans to work on mixing, a computer glitch (one of many) put things on hold.
“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. “When you have an engineer looking at a computer screen saying ‘Dude this is freaking me out, that’s not what you want to hear,’” McMurtry 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, like he did on 2005’s Childish Things and 2008’s Just Us Kids, to work with producers C.C. Adcock and Mike Napolitano.
“The label wanted a solo record really and I talked them out of that,” McMurtry says. “But we did take it more in an acoustic direction. There’s plenty of electric guitar, but it tends not to be featured. It tends to be layered in there.”
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 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.”
Those rocking tunes mixed in with songs from 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 his 2002 song. “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. There’s a lot of new stuff that’s come up in its place, including Red River Rehab, which hit the meter just fine. It’ll cover a whole album one of these days.”