Fri · March 1, 2019
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm
The Hangar Theatre
This event is all ages
The famously political songwriter, James McMurtry, has been keeping a close eye on the troubled Trump administration from across the pond while touring overseas. “A few years back, I put out a song called 'Cheney's Toy,'” McMurtry explains. “It was often misinterpreted due to a reference to an unknown soldier. People thought I was calling the soldier 'Cheney's Toy' when I actually was referring to then-President George W. Bush. It seemed to me that Cheney was the puppeteer in that administration, while Bush was the puppet, the toy. At several shows during my current tour of the UK and Europe, people have called out for me to sing,'Bannon's Toy.'”https://www.dspshows.com/event/1800199/
Fans hoping for more sociopolitical commentary from the singular songwriter got a taste with his recent single “Remembrance.” (“It's election time, but I couldn't get my head around modern politics,” McMurtry says of the song. “Perhaps history holds a lesson or two.”) Meanwhile, the longtime Austin resident continues riding waves of universal acclaim for his latest offering Complicated Game. “At a stage where most veteran musicians fall into a groove or rut, McMurtry continues to surprise,” Texas Music magazine recently noted. “[Complicated Game] is a collection of narratives as sharply observed as any from McMurtry, but with a contemplative depth that comes with maturity.”
Indeed, McMurtry's latest collection spotlights a craftsman in absolutely peak form as he turns from political toward personal (“These Things I've Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” the longtime Austin resident says. “It's also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman.” Either way, McMurtry spins his stories with a poet's pen (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter's precision (“She Loves Me”) throughout.
Folks notice Complicated Game delivering McMurtry's trademark story songs time and again (“Copper Canteen,” “Deaver's Crossing”). “[McMurtry] takes listeners on a road trip of unprecedented geographic and emotional scope,” No Depression raves of the new record. “Lyrically, the album is wise and adventurous, with McMurtry – who's not prone to autobiographical tales – credibly inhabiting characters from all walks of life.” “[McMurtry] Fuses wry, literate observations about the world with the snarl of barroom rock,” National Public Radio echoes. “The result is at times sardonic, subversive and funny, but often vulnerable and always poignant.”
Longtime fans know McMurtry's vibrant vignettes have turned heads for a quarter century now. “James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he's working at the top of his game,” says Americana all-star Jason Isbell. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don't think anybody writes better lyrics.” “Yes. Spin “South Dakota.” You'll hear. “They took their time with this one,” Texas Music magazine notes, “and it was well worth it. He's always been wise beyond his age, but middle age suits him well.”
Evidence: McMurtry’s Just Us Kids (2008) and Childish Things (2005). The former earned his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Meanwhile, Childish Things scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Childish Things won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year and “We Can’t Make It Here” was named the rapidly rising organization's Song of the Year.
Of course, Complicated Game doubles down on literate storytelling longtime enthusiasts expect. Recall high watermarks past: “Childish Things,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “Peter Pan,” “Levelland,” and “Out Here in the Middle” only begin the list. (Yes, Robert Earl Keen covered those last two, “Levelland” remaining a live staple.) Just Us Kids alone includes fan favorites “Hurricane Party,” “Ruby and Carlos” and “You’d a Thought.” High watermarks deliver equal measures depth and breadth and pierce hearts with sharp sociopolitical commentary (“Fireline Road”).
More history: McMurtry critically lauded first album Too Long in the Wasteland (1989) was produced by John Mellencamp and marked the beginning of a series of acclaimed projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill Records. In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video for Where'd You Hide The Body. Additionally, It Had To Happen (1997) received the American Indie Award for Best Americana Album.
In 2004, McMurtry released the universally lauded Live in Aught-Three on Compadre Records. The following year, Childish Things notched notched arguably his most critical praise, spending six weeks at No. 1 on the Americana Music Radio Chart in 2005 and 2006. In September 2006, Childish Things and "We Can't Make It Here" won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year, respectively. McMurtry received more Americana Music Award nominations for 2008's Just Us Kids. This album marked his highest Billboard 200 chart position in more than nearly two decades.
In 2009, Live in Europe was released, capturing the McMurtry band's first European tour and extraordinary live set. Along with seasoned band members Ronnie Johnson, Daren Hess, and Tim Holt, the disc features special guests Ian McLagan (The Faces) and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers, Skunks). Also, for the first time ever, video of the James McMurtry Band's live performance is available on the included DVD.
The poignant lyrics of his immense catalog still ring true today. In 2011, "We Can't Make It Here" was cited among 'The Nation's' "Best Protest Songs Ever." "'We Can't Make It Here,'” Bob Lefsetz wrote, “has stood the test of time because of its unmitigated truth."
McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: "Much attention is paid to James McMurtry's lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel's worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he's an accomplished rock guitar player...serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band."
It's all part of a grand plan - one methodically designed by Whitmore – from album cover, to album content. The songs concerns themselves with the slow disintegration of a relationship, and the album's title – Embers to Ashes – is meant to represent that story's painful arc – from the first fires of young passion to the scorched ruin of heartbreak. As a killer, Whitmore's the last you'd suspect: Embers to Ashes is full of sly, spry country music, whiskey-soaked songs that recall prime Loretta Lynn and early Neko Case and, in their more uptempo moments, Miranda Lambert at her rowdiest. But be warned: those revelers carry daggers, and there's a bit of arsenic in that glass of cherry wine. As Whitmore herself puts it, "Nothing says 'go to hell' better than a uptempo, catchy song!"
Whitmore learned her way around country music early, touring at the ripe old age of 8 with her parents and her sister in a traveling roadshow cheekily titled "Daddy & the Divas." "Basically, my dad had children so he could have a band," she jokes. "He really wanted a bass player, so I learned how to play bass. My sister played the violin."
Whitmore's father had a pilot's license – an accomplishment Whitmore herself would later achieve – so he'd fly the family to their gigs at remote Texas bars and overcrowded fall festivals. And though they were a family act, Bonnie often stole the show: "As a little girl with a big voice singing 'Gold Dust Woman,' a lot of times I'd get the biggest applause."
As much as she loved playing with her family, the older she got, the more she wanted to strike out on her own. "I started to realize that I loved playing music," she says. "So when I was 16 I started writing my own songs." As her teen years progressed, Whitmore began working as a session player with other local musicians, while still continuing to perform with her family from time to time. For her first proper statement as a solo artist, she wanted to do something conceptual – something that told a story from beginning to end.
"I wanted to set up the album so it's: 'Boy meets girl, they breakup, but then there's the kind of postscript. At the end of the album, you have to deal with the lingering memory of that lost love."
Whitmore realized that vision to a striking degree. The title track is the kind of rough-and-tumble country song that would do Kathleen Edwards proud, but its rollicking rhythms conceal a sinister message: "Well, the preacher said until death to us part/ so you're gonna have to pay for this broken heart." "Tin Man" barrels forward like vintage Liz Phair, Whitmore using the classic Wizard of Oz character to pillory a heartless ex. Its lyric is built on a sly double-entendre: "Replaced by a girl named Mary who shares my middle name" (Whitmore's middle name is "Jane"). "She Walks" is a sparkling, mid-tempo number with all the ache of Lucinda Williams or Gillian Welch, while "Cotton Sheets" plays out like bright update of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Passionate Kisses," Whitmore cannily using its central metaphor to stand in for the tension between upper and lower class.
She's just as adept on the record's softer numbers. "You Gonna Miss Me" is a slow ramble Whitmore wrote around the time she was moving from Texas for a brief stay in Tennessee. "I was really concerned about how leaving was going to be, and I think I was hopeful that I was going to be missed," she explains. "Sometimes, if I'm really emotionally involved when I'm playing a show, this song can get me to the point where I'm almost in tears."
The album was cut in a marathon two-day session in the studio, guided by the sure hand of producer Chris Masterson. "Chris produced my sister's record, Airplanes" Whitmore explains, "and it's unbelievable the things that he pulled together when we worked together. He had such great vision -– he could hear sounds that weren’t there yet. I went into the studio with the intention of doing an EP, and he pushed me to do a full album."
The gambit paid off – Embers to Ashes is full of ragged, rugged, instantly memorable country songs, a document of a relationship where passion burns hot, bright and quickly, and danger looms like a thunderstorm in the distance.
"I'm so grateful I have songwriting as an outlet, because it lets me relieve some of my darker emotions," Whitmore explains. "Instead of going and maybe being a bit destructive, I just write songs instead. I know sometimes I write angsty songs, but that’s how I get the angst out." Then she pauses and adds, with a why smile, "Kinda makes you wonder about the people who write all those happy songs!"
The Hangar Theatre
801 Taughannock Blvd
Ithaca, NY, 14850