When you think of a James McMurtry character, you envision someone staring out over the plains or the water or the highway. Nevermind that the plains are filling up with strip malls, or that the water’s banks are infested with lake houses, or that, for all the highway stretched out like the future, there’s a good bit that’s already been traveled like the past. It’s tempting to think of McMurtry as a high-plains drifter version of John Mellencamp, but when McMurtry sings from the perspective of someone who inherits farmland, they’re usually moaning that it isn’t suitable for a WalMart. Nevertheless, McMurtry’s characters can be a contemplative bunch, using those wide open vistas and changing horizons to create keen observations.
As the son of writer Larry McMurtry, James McMurtry gets it honest. In fact, the younger McMurtry took a few knocks early in his career for the writing advice his father supposedly provided. I don’t know about you, but if I had the author of Lonesome Dove for a dad, I’d kidnap him and bring him on tour just for the chance to sit at his feet while he doled out character development wisdom. James McMurtry, though, has come into his own—quietly since he debuted with some fanfare with 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland. Typically alternating between two tempos—a dusty plains boogie and Texas-hewn acoustic balladry—McMurtry’s tales are often sad, occasionally wry, and more often than not, spot-on evocations of inner thoughts.
Live in Aught-Three brings those abilities into sharp focus. Recorded over two nights at Nashville’s 12th & Porter and one night at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, the disc finds McMurtry and his crack band, the Heartless Bastards, trolling through his catalog and confirming his status as a songwriting force worth noticing.
The song selection stretches across his career (although “Too Long in the Wasteland” is the only song to make the cut from his excellent debut), and the sound is typically lean, even snarling in places. The Heartless Bastards don’t try to be a roadhouse band, but there’s a remarkable absence of fat in the arrangements, which is fitting given McMurtry’s customary economy with words.
Live in Aught-Three really gets going about 1/3 of the way in, when McMurtry settles into a batch of songs that examines the juxtaposition of old-fashioned purity and modern encroachment in rural America. “No More Buffalo” teems with “ah hell” realizations, while “60 Acres” explores the more pragmatic side of inheritance. Nimble guitar and a solemn drum beat attempt to pull “Rachel’s Song” in two different directions, befitting the ambivalence of the lyrics. Equally uncertain but more sardonic is “Out Here in the Middle”, which works up to a soaring chorus full of McMurtry’s trademark wryness. The narrator’s pride that you can leave your doors unlocked mixes with the bittersweet observation that Starbucks has come to town. He observes that the area contains “amber waves of grain and bathtub speed”, states ominously that “applicants are screened with a fine-toothed comb”, and that it’s a place “where the center’s to the right and the ghost of William Jennings Bryant preaches every night”. Following that is a head-first dive into “Choctaw Bingo”, a meth-cookin’, arms-hoardin’, Asian-bride-orderin’, 2nd-cousin-lustin’ tale that rides a locomotive riff for all it’s worth.
The unreleased live favorite “Lights of Cheyenne” drops things down to a personal, but no less wistful, level, with the lights of the title acting as a beacon of different sorts for the song’s characters. “Levelland” sets its tone early with the line “Flatter than a tabeltop / Makes you wonder why they stopped here / Wagon must have lost a wheel / Or they lost ambition, one”. McMurtry ends the disc on an uptemp note, with the briskness of “I’m Not From Here”, followed by a gasoline-soaked bluesy take on “Too Long in the Wasteland” and a nod to Townes Van Zandt with “Rex’s Blues”.
All in all, Live in Aught-Three is a decent introduction to McMurtry, and it definitely works as a snapshot of where McMurty is now. All those songs of adult restlessness and of finding little personal patches of freedom mark McMurtry as a legitimate inheritor of the Texas songwriting tradition. Over the course of his career, McMurtry’s settled into his niche so comfortably that it’s easy to take him for granted; Live in Aught-Three, though, goes a long way towards shining a proper spotlight on a songwriter who some people may have forgotten.