By Barry Gilbert
About six years ago, Kelly House Concerts in St. Louis presented Justin Townes Earle, a young man who was all but unknown save for his famous last name. On Saturday night, KHC presented Curtis McMurtry – son of musician James, grandson of novelist Larry – and it will be interesting to see whether this young college grad travels a career arc similar to that of the son of Steve Earle.
It shouldn’t be ruled out. As with the Earle show, a small audience of about 30 gathered in Kelly’s listening space, drawn by the enthusiasm of the hostess and curiosity about McMurtry. Would his voice hint of the droll, deadpan delivery of his dad? Would his songs convey details of time and place like the writing of both dad and granddad?
The answers to those questions are “no,” but that’s not a criticism. Curtis McMurtry is his own man, writing and performing in his own style. His fine voice is actually closer to that of a pop singer than a rocker, folkie or blues man; I’ll bet he could do a killer impression of the Vegas-style lounge singer. (Again, that’s not a criticism!) He’s a helluva good whistler, too.
McMurtry graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in May and spent the last couple of months in his hometown of Austin, Texas, playing with Jon Dee Graham during Graham’s residency at the Continental Club.
McMurtry, who was to move to Nashville the morning after the St. Louis show, was charming throughout his two 45-minute sets. Drawing from tracks cut by his college band, God’s Chosen People, as well as older and newer selections, McMurtry showed a mostly dark and down persona during the music but a funny and witty MC between songs.
He explained how he writes, essentially building a song like making a patchwork quilt. Every day, he writes a couple of dozen lines – snippets, couplets, whatever he comes up with. He writes them down on his computer, and winnows the good stuff from the “meh” stuff in a series of folders. When it come time to write a song, he culls his saved lines for ones that fit the mood or subject of the song.
Not all that spontaneous, but McMurtry says it works for him, and the work ethic is reminiscent of his grandfather’s. Larry McMurtry told the Daily Beast in April that he writes X-number of pages every day, the number depending on the project. Curtis allowed that he probably got his routine from his grandfather.
The results speak for themselves. Two lines especially lingered after the show: “we grow, we grow, we grow, we grow, we grow until we don’t fit anymore,” from “Ezekiel”; and “Don’t you see that we never grow up, we only get better behaved,” from “Chaplinesque.”
McMurtry, accompanying himself alternately on acoustic and electric guitars, as well as on a “banjolele” for one song, devoted most of the first set to slow- and midtempo songs about love and loss, often coming at the subject a bit obliquely, such as in the haunting “Eleanor’s House.” The first-set closer, on the other hand, was more vitriolic and wry – “I Never Was Your Man.” McMurtry mixed in fine covers of songs by Townes Van Zandt (“No Place to Fall”), John Prine (“Fish and Whistle”) and his Austin neighbor Lee Barber (“Picture of Evelyn”).
Set 2 was to feature murder ballads, McMurtry warned before the intermission, and harder-edged songs did appear, such as “Foxhole” and “Wife of My Enemy.” “Whiskey Sweat” was a standout – a full band version is on YouTube – and covers ranged from Shovels and Rope (“Shank Hill St.”) to Tom Waits (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) to James McMurtry (“Gulf Road”).
Still, the mood remained low and and the songs remained mostly midtempo, lending a certain sameness to the sound. A little more variety would have helped, which McMurtry realized as he warned more than once that a particular song would benefit from his full band – “It really sounds good with the horn section.”
But that criticism is hesitatingly offered. Curtis McMurtry is a talented new artist. And we got to see him in an intimate setting, right at the beginning.