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James McMurtry's gritty perspective

The Texas songwriter: poet son



"I would love to have a pro driver at this point in my career," says James McMurtry, pausing on the phone with City Paper to order another glass of wine from the bar that he's calling from.

After two decades, the 48-year-old Texan deserves someone to take the wheel so he can tour the country and sing his trademark country/rock songs, mired in biting witticisms. But then again, that might mean sacrificing the everyman voice he puts to his lyrics, adopting the mindset of the average, working-class, yet fascinating characters whose perspectives he writes from.

The story behind "Choctow Bingo," the redneck family reunion opus (from the 2002 album Saint Mary of the Wood) — perhaps his most recognizable tune — is a case in point.

"For a while there, it seemed like every tour started or ended up going through Oklahoma," says the Austin-based songwriter. "We always wound up going up Highway 69, which had all this weird stuff along it. 'Choctow Bingo' was kind of a writing exercise to see how much of that stuff I could get into one song, and the weird part is I started putting all that stuff in there, and within a year or two, it was gone. The bingo parlor in Durant, it's now the Choctow Casino. It's huge. The gun shop in Tulsa is gone. The lingerie store in Baxter Springs, Kan., is in Missouri somewhere now.

"The first time I came through Baxter Springs was because I made a wrong turn," he continues, referring to the song's lyrics. "I went up alternate 69 instead of regular 69, which sounds kind of weird. But I came through Baxter Springs in the middle of the night, like two in the morning, and there's nothing lit up downtown except these pink [neon] Rolling Stones lips, and I woke the drummer up in the seat next to me and said, 'Is that real?' and he said, 'Yeah, I think so.' So a couple years later we came back through in the daylight, and sure enough it was a lingerie store next to the biker bar across the street from the bank and the Methodist church."

The song rambles on much like his explanation, entertaining all the while. McMurtry's knack for storytelling isn't surprising — his father is novelist Larry McMurtry, of Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment fame. The elder McMurtry still writes, but his passion is his Archer City, Texas, book store, where he's gathered more than a million books into a series of buildings around the town's main square, revitalizing an economy heavily depressed by the decline in oil field profits a decade ago.

"The Texas economy was just cratering, so he got a lot of cheap buildings and moved all his stock home," says James. "He did a real good trade for a long time, because those rare book guys love to travel and check it out, but then after 9/11 people quit traveling, and the internet came up where people are selling online, and he's not into that."

Like the accessibility of his quasi-famous son, it's fitting that when you visit Larry McMurtry's book store, you browse on the honor system, then call the cell phone number on building number one's door to call the employee who will ring you up.

Until recently though, the younger McMurtry wasn't all that accessible to his fans in Charleston. His visit to the Pour House last September was his first Lowcountry appearance since 1992, and he's back for a second helping this Sunday, along with his long-time bandmates Daren Hess (drums), Ronnie Johnson (bass), and Tim Holt (guitar and soundboard).

"We've been touring the country pretty steadily for years, it's just that Charleston's kind of been off the route," says McMurtry. "I don't know why we're back so soon. I guess they must have thought the last time was okay."

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