James McMurtry’s synchronistic guitar playing is the yin to his songwriting yang

James McMurtry. Courtesy Texas Monthly

James McMurtry has embarked on his first tour in several years. He will perform solo in dates running through April, then continue with his band in May, on a tour running through the end of July.

Upper Midwest McMurtry dates include April 22 at Old Town School of Music, in Chicago, June 11 at the SPACE, in Evanston, June 12 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee (https://shankhall.com/), and June 14 at The Ark in Ann Arbor.

Here’s the full tour list: https://www.highroadtouring.com/artists/james-mcmurtry/itinerary/

 Imagining James McMurtry in his element: He squints hard, and sees humanity and the world with laser vision, in the cruel Texas-glare sun, amid imperious cactuses. Flies buzz like hungry little devils. James coughs in the dust, but a man knows what he’s gotta do. Especially if he’s as driven as he is. He could drive a cattle herd across that behemoth state, and beyond, like the one his father Larry McMurtry famously depicted in his famous novel Lonesome Dove.

But such epic drives are rare now, as cattle growing and marketing are bad for the planet. James knows this, even as he commemorates, partially in Spanish, a deceased cowboy friend and his tradition in his recent song “Vaquero.” So, he turns off his vintage Ford Falcon convertible, peers at the horizon, the hot wind rippling his long gray hair. He lifts his cowboy hat, wipes sweat off his grimy brow, then plops the hot hat right back on. Part of him wishes he has a horse raring to go, instead of a smelly old car. So, he reaches over to the passenger seat, unbuckles his 12-string Gibson acoustic guitar, climbs out, leans against the car, and starts up a big sky-type chordal pattern.

He sings, “No more buffalo…” This thought he seems to care about greatly, as metaphor and as reality. Why and how? The guitar has plenty to do with it.

James McMurtry at home: He ended another Livestream pandemic solo home concert recently with that song, set his guitar down and said “thank you” to the silent audience that can applaud only with Facebook comments. I think “No More Buffalo” is something of a signature song, and I think he feels that way, too. You could make an obvious case for “We Can’t Make It Here,” too, or perhaps “Just Us Kids,” or “Choctaw Bingo.” The majestically big-picture “Long Island Sound” and one troubled man’s stunningly confessional “Decent Man” are more recent candidates.

(As far as I know, McMurtry’s “Live with Restream” home solo concerts are only available on his Facebook page, which you can follow: https://www.facebook.com/watch/JamesMcMurtry/

But those songs are mostly anthemic, and clear hallmarks, whereas James is also an expert in understatement, of tracing the shadows of the underserved. Among his more indelible intimate American portraits is the stoic loser of “Rachel’s Song,” who might be quite typical of many contemporary divorced people, stumbling along spiritually on a deserted street. It’s telling that Jason Isbell, a younger talent of superlative songwriting skills, has covered this song, with tender insight.

As an American troubadour McMurtry rivals any we know today. But he’s also only the peculiar kind he’s capable of being. That happens to involve an atypical genius which has been insufficiently addressed to date, in its artistic fullness.

Indeed, the often-surly glory of his artistry is piling up just a bit: Not only have I not yet written about his latest album The Horses and the Hounds, but I’ve also come to realize that his fullest artistry doesn’t just lie squarely on his most salient talent, the lyric-endowed song.

McMurtry started playing guitar at age seven (first taught him by his mother, an English professor) but didn’t start writing songs until he was 18, he has said.

The stereotype is the gifted singer-songwriter as a type of literary whiz. We don’t associate their guitar-playing and songwriting skills as part of a shared prism of expression and narrative, especially coming out of the folk tradition, where a songwriter is expected to do little more than simply strum through simple chord changes.

James McMurtry performing “Down Across the Delaware.” Courtesy YouTube.

Today McMurtry seems, song after song, compelled to self-accompaniment as integral to his storytelling technique, like a sonic cinematographer, or musical dramatist. He’s never showy, yet the guitar can pull you into his distinctive musical world with a magnetic force and, when he’s playing 12-string, his rhythmic patterns and pulses sparkle with harmonic auras that can be stunning. His guitar blends rhythm playing, rich chording, and finger-style adornments. His digits tell their own story yet boost and entwine his songs, which explore a variety of cadences and moods, in well-observed and psychologically resonant narratives.

He admits he takes his sweet time writing songs. But performing his songs, with glimmering and chiaroscuroed backdrops, seems a weekly task of this troubadour, with his well-oiled work ethic. Witnessing that online has been a precious upshot of the COVID pandemic’s forced social distancing.

So, the realm of that interactive song-guitar dynamic is where we must assess McMurtry. He may be the greatest songwriter now working in his prime – one video-watcher, himself a songwriter, called him “The Dustbowl Dylan … and the best everyman songwriter alive.”

Yet McMurtry might also be our greatest singer-songwriter/self-accompanist, capable of extraordinary yins to his yangs. That’s why his assessment as an artist must be recalibrated. A comparable songwriter and more gifted singer, Willie Nelson, also is an extraordinary guitarist, but sort of when he wants to be – periodic fluent solos between verses on his battered old guitar named Trigger.

Another artist who comes to mind in comparison is Leo Kottke, but Kottke is known primarily as a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist. If McMurtry set his mind to it, I think he could do a guitar-oriented set like Kottke does.

This has much to do with the virtuosity and artistry he has refined, especially over the last year and a half at his home. He has performed Livestream with skilled diligence each Wednesday and Sunday. This is a logical extension of his weekly, self-imposed Wednesday night gigs at Austin’s Continental Club, whenever he’s not touring. 1

This recalls somewhat our greatest living songwriter, Bob Dylan, because they both seem driven to constantly work or tour, Dylan especially at an advancing age. We should remember what Thomas Edison famously said: “Genius is two-percent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration.”

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I first became aware of the synchronicity of McMurtry’s guitar playing and song-craft when I got a 10-feet-away seat for a solo acoustic recital at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall in 2014. Here was my immediate response:

“Friends, it was Thursday at Shank Hall in Brew Town and James McMurtry was dealin’, alone, with nothin’ but a 12-string guitar. That surprisingly stacked the deck for a show that rated four aces, period. He’s so skilled – playing bass accompaniment to his typically deft figurations – that I never missed his band. At times, the 12-string’s shining harmonic resonances at a fast-chugging tempo sounded like a chrome-plated locomotive at full speed. Best 12-string playing this side of Leo Kottke.”

I’ve seen only brief video-response comments on McMurtry’s solo acoustic performances during the pandemic; we are more aware of his electric playing with his band. A singer-songwriter named Sean, the same person quoted about the “Dustbowl Dylan,” also comments: “Sometimes you can tell the road has worn him down a bit, but his guitar playing is always the driving force of his band. His electric sound is effortless, full, and he can create an amazing sustain.”

So, attention must be paid: McMurtry’s self-accompaniment has become even more deft, fluent, and effective as the driving force of his songs. It’s as if he insists on sustaining a strong or at least simpatico heartbeat for even his most diminished characters, like the nameless, quietly desperate person in “Cutter,” bereft yet clinging to better memories. The song – which also poignantly reflects the too-common gulf of understanding between even close friends – closes Complicated Game with stunning power.

I hope McMurtry considers shepherding and curating a dozen of the best solo acoustic songs he has Livestreamed in recent times for an album. Now that would be something, quiet but deeply resonant.

You see, I’m shifting gears: To fully contextualize my focus on his guitar-to-song-singing synchronicity, I need to delve properly into the depths of his song-writing prowess.

So, as I said, “No More Buffalo” (from the fatefully titled 1997 album It Had to Happen) is, too me, one of the great environmental protest songs we have. 2 It’s so good because it starts with a chest-filling chordal statement that portends something, in a G-D-A-G progression. The song sustains or suspends on that major key sequence until a few anguished B-flats, most tellingly on the phrase “I swear” on the late-in-the-song lyric: But man, they were here, they were here I swear. Yet, McMurtry sort of sidles up to that point, by telling a story of a group of graying guys who probably haven’t changed their ways in just about forever. But at least one of them remembers and feels something and sees how things have changed. So, the song’s narrator finally tunes into the problem. But see how the revelation sneaks up on him:

We headed South across those Colorado plains
Just as empty as the day
We looked around at all we saw

Remembered all we’d hoped to see
Looking out through the bugs on the windshield
Somebody said to me

(chorus) No more buffalo, blue skies or open road
No more rodeo, no more noise
Take this Cadillac, park it out in back
Mama’s calling, put away the toys

The narrator now remembers and believes, too – just maybe the noble, hulking giants are still out there. He continues until this interchange of voices:

I never thought they’d ever doubt my words
I guess they were just too tired to care
I’d point to the horizon, to the dust of the herds
Still hovering in the air
Somebody said it ain’t any such
Man you wish so hard you’re scaring me

‘Cause those are combines kicking up that dust
But you can see what you want to see
And go on chasing after what used to be there
Top that rise and face the pain

But man, they were here, they were here I swear
Not just these bleaching bones, stretching across the plain

Those anonymous “somebody saids” make the rhetoric work, persuasive without haranguing, or preaching. “Somebody” could be anyone, or his own subconscious and memory reflecting each other. So, we feel the loss, as if the hoary bison embodied something invaluable in life. Even the rodeo, the celebration of Wild West conquerors who helped desecrate the land and its creatures, and committed genocide of Native Americans – even the mano contra toro — has become passe.

And by the end, the title refrain, one more time, has gained momentum, a power you feel in your own bones. It’s like their car is speeding up, hurtling towards a horizon falling to the abyss of irrevocable passage. Since I heard it and it sunk in, I’ve never been able to think about the buffalo or the travesties and waste of The West without McMurtry’s song ringing in the back of my head.

This is a band performance of “No More Buffalo” but McMurtry, as usual on this song, plays acoustic guitar. Along with those chords, Daren Hess’s bass drum and tom toms open the song, resounding like cracks of revelation in a gorge of environmental ignorance. Then, listen to those drums, a brilliant stroke, rumble through the song, just like the tromping thunder of the great vanquished herds. This piece slays me every time, earning its emotional impact every step of the way. 2

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Courtesy New West Records

This brings me to his latest album. The titular phrase, “the horses and the hounds,” recurs as several meanings. Ostensibly it seems to tell – as the wonderfully blue-tinged noir album cover does – of a working stiff who drives a horse-truck trailer. What other meaning? “The singer finally admits, “Still, I’m running from the horses and the hounds.” He’s running from horses?  These magnificent, larger-than-life creatures, often with very close relationships with humans – can occur in dreams, a phenomenon artistically acknowledged as early as in Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.”

Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.” Courtesy fineartamerica.com

As for the hounds: There’s always the mythical hellhounds that bluesman Robert Johnson endured, and maybe helped chase him to his early grave. They sure haunt his legacy and the blues tradition. It’s an enduring metaphor for psychological affliction or terror.

Hellhounds on the trail of blues legend Robert Johnson. Art print by Elena Barbieri. Courtesy INPRINT

McMurtry also often trades in the interface of hard-grit reality and troubled dreams or memories. He talks about one of the new album’s most substantial songs, “Decent Man,” a story that might give any man in this situation nightmares.

McMurtry reimagines a Wendell Berry short story, which derived from Woody Guthrie’s song “Tom Joad,” itself a musical portrait of the protagonist of novelist John Steinbeck’s Dustbowl tragedy The Grapes of Wrath.

The “decent man” is the guy the narrator kills with a .38 pistol. No less than his best friend. It’s unclear why he shot him, but he circles semi-coherently around his mental state:

If the truth be known, I wasn’t doing that well/ I wasn’t paying attention, I brought it on myself/and I blamed it on the gods that seem to smile on everybody else/I got so inside out, I didn’t know what was real.”

That sounds like what? Maybe like too-many men in tough life situations where a conflagration of circumstances put them in a paranoid or aggrieved state, and a gun is too easy to reach for, and to irrationally think it will solve a complicated problem. It usually makes thing worse, much worse. It’s an all-too American dilemma and tragedy, repeated with shocking, even numbing, frequency.

Listen: My fields are empty now/my ground won’t take the plow. / It’s washed down to gravel and stones. / It’s only good for buryin’ bones. That is the song’s actual chorus, one of the most devastated choruses you’ll ever hear. It’s a murder ballad of uncommon ingenuity, yet understanding of common human foibles, and suffering. And loss. Most of all.

In McMurtry’s version of the story, the killer’s daughter, named Lola, visits him in jail. She still loves her dad, despite the horror of his deed, and that bothers the prisoner as much as the crime itself. His own daughter’s love throws this man off balance so that he must reconsider his still-fresh self-loathing. “I don’t know how she even stands to look on her daddy’s face,” McMurtry sings. There’s no better way to comment on this story than the songwriter’s summation: He was more than just a decent man/ best friend I ever had. / When you’re shooting at a coffee can/ a thirty-eight don’t kick that bad. / But it kicks right through my bones every second of every day/ clacking by like cobblestones under broken wheels.”

Even if he’s profoundly affected, in shock, he still doesn’t seem to know why he did it. Because life is too confusing or abject? Does that disquieting possibility offer any hope for absolution or healing?

It’s powerful stuff. How does Lola really feel? And the victim’s family? And “poor dad?” – The song strives for some empathy for him.

Laurence Fishburne played Socrates Fortlow in an HBO adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel. IMDb

The killer recalls Socrates Fortlow (pictured above), a fascinating murder/rape ex-convict created by novelist Walter Mosley who never understands the reasons for his crimes, yet becomes a street philosopher of redemptive power, while always remaining “at risk.”

McMurtry credits Horses producer Ross Hogarth who “probably got the best vocal performances I’ve ever done.” On “Blackberry Winter,” in his upper singing register, McMurtry is his most emotionally engaged.

A man looks back at the seeming end of his primary relationship, and having to refuse his woman, who apparently still has feelings for him, “to tell her no, to tell her no.” It’s a tough task to do at once, emotionally at least. And does he really need to? “Blackberry winter” is a Southern term for damaging early spring freezes, after blackberries have blossomed. Couldn’t he see if some berries – from the original branch their relationship grew upon – are still salvageable?

McMurtry is expert at painting pictures of troubled, just-barely-getting-by common folk, in the era of American democracy in peril. Or so it seems, with working folk still struggling while the rest of “the economy” – investors, Wall Street, big business, etc. – seems to flourish. Many of these working folk are now Trumpsters, sadly, because they had nowhere else to turn, feeling their dreams are threatened. So, they hang onto common biases of white fear or “supremacy,” as a psychological crutch holding up a nominal ideology.

rump – a successful faux television demagogue to whom the Electoral College handed the keys to The Bully Pulpit – understood, voiced, and “validated” their grievances. The Democratic Party had forgotten about them a long time ago, as Thomas Frank argues cogently in “Listen, Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of The People?” So, the song’s emotional impact radiates like an extended electric shock, about a characteristic state of American being. It poses the implicit question: Do you know someone like this? Might one of these people be you?

What are we gonna do for these people? Will politicians ever address their concerns and suffering honestly, instead of only as an election ploy? Frank argues you won’t get it from the contemporary professional upscale liberal (think of Silicon Valley culture and comparable ones) where funding and values go to support entrepreneurship and “innovation” that does little for the plight or incomes of ordinary folk.

These may even be “innovative” ways to exploit them. Of the working class, these elevated folks think that, if you don’t have a college degree, it’s your fault, Frank explains. Even teachers, by their thinking, are suspect professionals, beneath their value system. The current Democratic party has shifted closer to addressing the huge lower end of the equality gap since Frank’s 2016 appraisal, but in 2022 President Biden hasn’t yet substantially addressed racial justice and other issues crucial to inequality, to bridge the political gap Democrats helped create for Trump to exploit and widen. Inflation and high gas prices don’t help, even if the latter helps the effort to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion.

The narrator of “Blackberry Winter” might be telling her “no” because he can’t afford to support her, or some other circumstance of a tough life, devalued and forsaken. McMurtry’s characters often live close to the edge, like so many Americans. “And tell you no,” isn’t delivered in a way suggesting any disdain, based on a contaminated relationship. In this vocal register he sounds a bit like Jackson Browne. 3 So there’s a plaintive weariness beneath his straightforward talk, which also conveys something palpable and spiritual, and common to humanity, like “everybody has holes to fill, and you know those holes are all that’s real,” as Townes Van Zandt. once sang.

McMurtry is akin to fellow Texas troubadour Van Zandt whom he’s covered him from time to time – he does covers very occasionally — including Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” on his 1998 album Walk Between the Raindrops and on his live 2004 album Live in Aught Three. 4

In a 2019 interview, McMurtry commented on America’s current tribalism: “Everybody wants to feel a part of something. They are in a group thing. They don’t want to think individually. It’s easy to make money off of that. It’s not just American, it’s human. It’s always been like that…

“It’s hard-wired caveman stuff. We have to learn how to think our way around that. Basically, our minds will have to evolve faster than (our) simian brains are able to evolve on a cellular level. That hard wiring is going to stay in there unless we learn to short-circuit it in some way, or we are just going to perish.” 5

In solo renditions of his newest songs, his guitar-playing’s fluent sense of rhythmic propulsion and drama, and his quirkily apt harmonic changes – which sometimes recall those of Joni Mitchell – cast just the right tone, emotional grist, and gravitas. The Horses and the Hounds has plenty more character-packed scenarios, no more poignant than truck-driving “Jackie,” whose fate ambushes the listener with McMurtry’s matter-of-fact tone. And yet, there’s also the self-deprecating comic relief of “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.” After doing “Decent Man” and “Jackie” consecutively on a Livestream, he peered at his setlist and muttered, “Well, I got a bunch a’ real downers in here this time. Break out the Prozac.” His speaking delivery is as dry as tumbleweed too old to tumble.

The Horses album, with old drumming mate Darren Hess and a bunch of studio aces, is a continuation of a major artist at the peak of his powers, who seems philosophically bittersweet, slyly heartfelt, and still cranky enough, and still comparatively obscure, given his talents. He’s capable of very catchy songs, but his ordinary-Joe voice always earns its emotional truths, and he’s no attention-seeking self-promoter, so he never compromises his art. In that way, he may be keeping himself close to the real people reflected in his characters.

His music is a vivid way to refocus reality to where our social responsibilities might best align. With “the people.” McMurtry’s seemingly forgotten folk dwell low in societal shadows, with some, in effect, face-down in American dirt, because you can’t get lower, without being buried alive.

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(Author’s note: This essay was submitted to nodepression.com, which didn’t accept it because, they said, “We don’t publish essays on individual artists.” Ironically, the first article they ever published of mine was also an essay of comparable length. Their editors have since changed.)

  1. I’m not a guitarist, so I won’t get gear-geeky here. But I’ll report that, on his Livestreams, McMurtry regularly alternates among four (or five) acoustic guitars: a 12-String Ovation, a 12-string Fender, a red 6-string Guild, and, I believe, a 6-string Fender. Sometimes he pulls out a big, dark brown 8-string baritone guitar, which he refers to as “The Beast.” In November, he used it to play the title song from The Horses and the Hounds. He seems to have slight preference for the 12-strings.
  2. Buffalo appear to be making a comeback. I’d like to think McMurtry’s song, released in 2007 made some difference in consciousness and action.
  3. “No More Buffalo” is also on the 2007 collection, James McMurtry, The Best of the Sugar Hill Years.
  4. Perhaps not coincidentally there’s an influence. McMurtry recorded most of the album at Jackson Browne’s Groovemasters Studio in Los Angeles.
  5. Caleb Horton, in a James McMurtry Primer blog, vividly explains the connection in the kinds of emotional impacts of their music:

“The easiest way to explain it is that James McMurtry and Townes Van Zandt exist along a ten-beer continuum. McMurtry plays to that fourth beer, right before you decide to have six more, where you’re sitting down, and sadness somehow feels like the world’s only honest emotion. Van Zandt plays to beer number ten, where pharmacy vodka with a wolf on the label is in the cards and tomorrow doesn’t even exist because the sun’s down.” Horton continues. “Point is, I can only listen to Townes Van Zandt two or three times a year. The man’s music should come with a warning label…like they do with European cigarettes. James McMurtry is in the same tradition, but he opens the blinds in the morning. I can listen to him. And that’s how I recommend him to people.”  Caleb Horton, A James McMurtry Primer http://bitterempire.com/james-mcmurtry-primer/

  1. Mary Andrews, “McMurtry Remains the Harbinger of American Truth,” Glide Magazine https://glidemagazine.com/228503/james-mcmurtry-remains-the-harbinger-of-american-truth-interview/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Porterfield of Field Report travels inner highways and outer byways

Christopher Porterfield on the road. milwaukeerecord.com

Perhaps his parents detected the glint of a wanderer in their infant’s eyes, then they named him. Christopher Porterfield is like a flawed version of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, especially in his marvelous song “Home (Leave the Lights On).” Or in “Summons” or “Enchantment,” or the Kerouac-esque “If I Knew.” In his humble way, Porterfield conveys an acute sense of place, even as locales shift. So he honors “the sacred,” as he did in his recent live YouTube performance, from Café Carpe, the quietly legendary roots music venue in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which prompted this essay. He paraphrased the great poet-naturalist Wendell Barry: “There are no places that are not sacred, only some that are desecrated.” This recalls the adage “The Holy Land is everywhere,” spoken by Native American wise man Black Elk, as the white man began his desecrating.

And much of Porterfield’s traveling runs parallel to wayward inner psycho-scapes, like the one depicted on the cover of the second Field Report album, Marigolden. There, two people stand separated by crevasses, lonely, yet heart-wrenchingly close, a stone’s throw away. Beside one person is a car — with head lights projecting towards the other person but too far overhead to illuminate the other person — an almost plaintive failure of technology.

Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy amazon.com

You get the feeling of risk in his wanderer’s sensibility. He conveys a distinctly American dilemma of isolation or alienation, from a desolate yet hungry heart. Yet the persona also belies the mythical Western loner/cowboy narrative.

Porterfield’s slightly nerdy-hip horn-rim specs help make that abundantly clear. The UW-Eau Claire journalism major crafted his band’s name as a clever anagram of his last name, and the name Field Report posits himself as striving to be an honest yet poetic correspondent on what he finds “out there,” in still-untamed or sacred or desecrated, America, and in the craggy depths of his own heart and life.

Bob Dylan still does something comparable but less confessionally, as he did brilliantly probing modern American history in his epic Kennedy assassination song “Murder Most Foul,” last year. Porterfield’s missives, rich in autobiographical experience, seem closer to The New Journalism as Song, with the reporter playing a central role.

To back up a bit, I recently made the critical assertion that James McMurtry is probably America’s finest living singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan.” Of course, there are a goodly handful of others who would be that in that “best” conversation, including Steve Earle, whom I also reviewed in that blog. 1

But recently, Porterfield reminded me of his powers in his superb, often exquisite virtual concert. The front man and singer-songwriter for Field Report is a Milwaukeean (by way of Minnesota), part of the rich motherlode of creative songwriting born of the Upper Midwest, including (among many others) Dylan, John Prine, Greg Brown, Prince, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams, Bill Camplin, Josh Harty, Heidi Spencer, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), with whom Porterfield previously played with in the band DeYarmond Edison.

I first met Porterfield some years ago, when we were both employed by Marquette University. He was leading his previous band, Conrad Plymouth, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, a Milwaukee music venue that has long nurtured and celebrated singer-songwriters. “Fergus Falls,” destined as the opener for the first Field Report album, was already a highlight in his repertoire.

I’ve seen him open solo for Richard Thompson at The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, which immediately put him on substantial ground with that great artist. By then, Field Report was touring and making its mark. The band has since opened for Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Aimee Mann, and others. They signed to Verve/Forecast in time for their third album Summertime Songs. That label’s catalogue includes Ritchie Havens, Tim Hardin and Laura Nyro.

So, yes, I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation of great songwriters. Porterfield isn’t as outward-looking or social commenting as a McMurtry or an Earle. But on the premise that “all politics is personal,” you might accordingly contextualize this far more introspective artist. He lacks some of the musical range and variety of those artists (He’s not really a rocker, as those two often are, even if Field Report’s last two albums delve into pop-rock textures and elevated production.

Porterfield is essentially a lyrical brooder who can raise his emotional temperature as high as a rocker’s, as a lonesome howling wolf, though not in a bluegrass sense. So, even if McMurtry often expresses regret and doleful sentiment in a funky rock groove, it’s often couched in ironic attitude — he can walk that fine line superbly. But until Porterfield proves otherwise, hearing him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.

Christopher Porterfield, lead singer-songwriter of Field Report. Courtesy npr.org

Though Earle certainly has strong and tender singing moments, Porterfield is actually a more gifted vocalist than either he or McMurtry. His songwriting catalog can’t compare to those prolific veterans, but his voice is how Porterfield often catches you, as sharply and powerfully as an ace fly fisherman. For now, instead of comparing him too closely to others, I’ll mainly strive to take him on his own terms — looking at the world from inside-out, and poetically, while often mining the quotidian, and being easy to connect with. His extraordinary singing emanates with stunningly affecting power, and unassuming poignancy. His points of emphasis often teeter along a gravelly vibrato that virtually bleeds vulnerability, and other times as startling upper-register bursts of emotion. These two stylistic aspects combine in the listener’s memory like a vivid, very human sonic silhouette.

Porterfield is a bruised, contemporary romantic, who directly admits he’s struggled with alcohol, who often sounds like a man dredging limpid thoughts from the depths of his innards, often with a starkness that feels naked, yet perfectly expressed, in the tender grain and surge of that voice. The emotion’s exposed moment often compels the outcries, but tempered by a man’s eloquent sense of self, uncertain as he may be of his situation.

Among his most affecting works is the aforementioned “Home (Leave the Lights On),” from Marigolden, which captures the longing of being “homeward-bound” as well has the famous Paul Simon song named for that phrase.

Among Porterfield’s most vivid, apparently recollected landscapes is “Fergus Falls,” the song resurrected from a 2010 Conrad Plymouth EP, for the self-titled debut Field Report album. Fergus Falls is a small town in Otter Tail County in Western Minnesota, his native state. Of the song’s inspiration, Porterfield told me: “My family used to have a cabin in northern Minnesota. We would drive through Fergus to get there. It sprung from my subconscious when that song appeared, mostly for the alliteration.”

The first Field Report album opens thusly: “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” It is the first of many struggles for equilibrium and grace in his lyric storytelling, and brings to mind another gifted Minnesota writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a drinker, who died at 44, and who, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun.” 2

Porterfield emerged from his early vertigo less fatefully, but comparably, with both a sharp-eyed self-insight and a sense of inhabited landscape. Recollected landscapes, real and metaphorical, are a key to his sensibility. As The All-Music Guide has noted, “Some albums are about mood more than anything else, and on Marigolden Porterfield shows he’s a master of creating an ambience that’s cinematic in its strength and emotional impact.”  In fact, I can easily envision a Porterfield song adorning one of the new breed of Western movies being made by women directors (eg. Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland), which court America’s sprawling, rugged spaces but understand the vulnerable smallness of the wandering or wayward soul, alienated from community. 3 “Enchantment” from Marigolden opens on “Easter morning in New Mexico: the Son is risen on another day.” The spiritual wordplay replaces macho Old West gun play.

Porterfield’s is a gift he shares with the Texan McMurtry, as well as not many others. It has to do with how he imbues such perfectly wrought details with psychological resonance, so they breathe ultimately as song lyrics even though they’re impressive even on paper.

Like the aforementioned songs, “If I Knew,” the best-known title from the third album Summertime Songs, is also a road song, but more like a DUI-fueled misadventure that probably left old Saint Chris forgotten, way back in the dust: “You were bouncing off the guardrails shouting at the wind/ we were off our meds, drinking again.”

Album cover for Field Report’s “Brake Lights Red Tide.” Courtesy bandcamp.com

On the latest Field Report album, 2020’s Brake Lights Red Tide, Porterfield is still on the road and still searching for equilibrium but with an enhanced sonic vision, that seems to suspend him from deterioration or harm, and allows listeners to share such uneasy atmospheric heights.

The album cover photo (above) is shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on an expansive modern bridge over a large body of water in China. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.

For me, this approach first seemed like a calculated detour, and throughout Porterfield’s singing is more restrained than previously. But the effect ultimately beguiles in its open waywardness. The sonics elevate the thrust of the album on a woozy arc, until finally the penultimate track, “Whulge,” which is essentially a synthesizer instrumental, rippling in sonic waves, buoyant yet immersive. “Red tide” refers to a dense kind of sea algae. So, between the atmospheric synth and that metaphoric “tide,” Porterfield still faces mysteries he dares to dive into, especially with such watery themes as “a river’s love” and “Puget Sound.” Finally, the closing track, “Begin to Begin,” suggests a certain sense of being, a psychological condition he describes which seems like falling back into a pre-natal state, a refrain in sighing descent: “Begin to begin to begin to begin…” Only a session with his therapist, he sings, can pull him out.

But the whole notion of receding from a troubled lifetime back into pre-birth, the swallowing or drowning of full experience, is a profound abandonment, a healing re-immersion into imagined innocence. Perhaps it is the impulse toward literary critic Ihab Hassan’s famous concept of American “radical innocence”: “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” 4

Somehow, after life’s vagaries, cruelties and suffering, perhaps it’s a longing we all subconsciously share, to reset our course to unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach, perhaps, until death’s passage.

Earlier on Red Tide rebirthing hovers, as this sad road saint sings, “My heart begs to be light but my mind gets dark. Can’t push us into love.”

Also, can’t push us into life, and its inevitable losses? Thus are the risks taken, by an artist as honest as he dares to be.

_________

  1. Or should I say, “younger than Willie Nelson”? The great critic Mikal Gilmore reminds us that, at 87, the godfather of “outlaw” Texas singer-songwriters, remains vital and in the game. https://legacyrecordings.medium.com/willie-nelson-first-rose-of-spring-1ae9f6eed41f Nelson’s long legacy (His 2018 album was aptly titled Last Man Standing), reinforces the research and statistics that show that marijuana is a far safer drug of pain or psychological management, or even indulgence, than booze (Among gifted singer-songwriters, see: Hank Williams, dead at 29; Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, dead last December at 38; and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, dead at 50; Tim Hardin dead at 39; Phil Ochs dead at 35, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, both dead at 27, primarily with alcohol abuse or hard drugs central to their demise. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s gun-shot suicide, at 27, was preceded by substantial drug abuse. The brilliant Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake overdosed, at 26, on a prescription anti-depressant drug, amitriptyline.)
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions, Modern Library, 139
  3. See Jordan Kisner’s essay, “The Western Rides Again,” The Atlantic, May 2021, 86 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/zhao-nomadland-women-western/618403/
  4. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton University Press 1961, 7

Steve Earle, and James McMurtry, mine the hearts of forsaken Trump voters

“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com

Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.

It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2

Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest 

Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs,  “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.

Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:

Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org

Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all twenty-nine Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”

When I saw Earle this summer at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin, he performed “It’s About Blood” and, sure enough, at the end, he recited the twenty-nine dead men’s names from memory, with raw, stentorian power. And now it seemed as if they were a band of brothers, his very own, and the names had lacerated his heart with so many scars. 

But the bridge across America was still rising.

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/ghosts-of-west-virginia-by-steve-earle-the-dukes-new-west/

***

Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly  solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.

He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3

“Complicated Game” album cover  

So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.

For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical impeachment conviction vote).

Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:

“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4

To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this vocal intoxication, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?

The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so the songwriters inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.

Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5

James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com

This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.

McMurtry typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).

But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates the betrayals of America’s economic times as well as anything.

Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.

“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through McMurtry’s veins by now. But he’s holding steady. 7

“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/ Won’t you share your morning’s catch/ with those whose ground you walk across/ May their memory be not lost. 

“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And he sure can celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes — he might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song “Cutter,” about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day. 

Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as “enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.”  8

We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid forthright footsteps to follow, and perhaps to a bridge to new understanding, healing and common purpose.

_____

1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.

Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.

3. Mike Seely, https://www.houstonpress.com/music/james-mcmurtrys-10-best-songs-6518030

4. Lorrie Moore, April 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office

5.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93

7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)

The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time

, and Paste Magazine’s “50 Greatest Alt-Country Albums,” (published in August 2016). https://www.pastemagazine.com/music/alt-country/the-50-best-alt-country-albums-of-all-time/

Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.

More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.

8. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/