McMurtry: He may be drunk, but you’re still ugly
Since he didn’t once break into a smile during a lengthy opening set at the Belly Up Monday night, it’s hard to know just when the darkly cynical James McMurtry is joking. So when McMurtry introduced his “Valley Road” by stating that President Bush was listening to the song while mountain-biking in Idaho, that anecdote had to raise some eyebrows. (McMurtry later left me a phone message that, while he is uncertain if the president actually listened to “Valley Road” ” a song about a badass with “no helmet or a care in the world” ” The New York Times reported that it was on Bush’s iPod.)
McMurtry and the president have a Texas address in common. In fact, they were practically neighbors; Bush, in his years as Texas governor, lived in Austin, McMurtry’s longtime hometown. Apart from that, it’s hard to imagine the singer and the politician sharing many ” or any ” sensibilities.
If Bush’s handlers have any say in the First Playlist, the president has not listened to “We Can’t Make It Here,” the song which followed “Valley Road” in Tuesday’s show. Or if he did, he didn’t enjoy it much.
Like many of McMurtry’s tunes, “We Can’t Make It Here,” from last year’s “Childish Things,” is relentlessly harsh in tone. And at the Belly Up, where McMurtry played in an electric combo, it was delivered with quite a bit of ringing, high-volume guitar and a punchy rock beat.
Unlike many of McMurtry’s songs, however, “We Can’t Make It Here” doesn’t deal in metaphors or angular meanings. The song is a weary, disgusted take on a modern-day America where Iraq vets are about to join Vietnam vets near the bottom of the social barrel, while corporate profiteers and their families stay home and count their money: “They’ll never know need / … their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war / We can’t make it here anymore.”
McMurtry had flashed his rebellious side earlier in the night. Introducing one song, he said he had retired it from his repertoire some years earlier. But because The New York Times had made a note of his dropping the song, he decided to bring it back.
Even McMurtry’s humorous moments have the sharpest edge. In one of his best-known lyrics, from the jealousy-fueled “Red Dress,” McMurtry sang “Yes, I’m drunk, but damn you’re ugly / Tell you one thing, yes I will / Tomorrow morning I’ll be sober, but you’ll be ugly still.” It says something about McMurtry’s devil-may-care attitude that he could sing those words while looking a mess himself.
McMurtry’s lighter moods were not exactly sunny. But “See the Elephant,” which uses childlike language while hinting at men leaving for war, had its amusing side. “Choctaw Bingo” got a reaction as much for the long-winded, rapid-fire song structure as the lyrics about weird relatives, the weird things they do and the weird places they do them.
It wasn’t a barrel of laughs, especially compared to the good-time bluegrass of the evening’s headliner, Hot Buttered Rum String Band. But McMurtry demonstrated that feel-good music isn’t the only reason to venture into a nightclub these days.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org