By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays a past-his-prime country singer named Bad Blake, who ekes out a living by playing bowling alleys and saloons throughout the American Southwest. So notorious a lush is Blake that the venues he plays typically refuse to comp him drinks for fear that he'll more than double his fee in spirits. A brilliant lyricist, what songs of Blake's became famous were made so by a younger, slicker, more Nashvillian protégé named Tommy Sweet, who used to play in Blake's band, dubbed Bad's Boys. Blake has more ex-wives than he can count, and his lone son has no interest in reconnecting with him after decades of absenteeism.
By contrast, Texas native James McMurtry is close to his 18-year-old son, Curtis, who played saxophone on his dad's most recent studio album, Just Us Kids. Though Curtis' folks are divorced, they live three blocks apart in Austin, and, unlike Blake and his exes (all of whom, presumably, live in Texas), they remain on cordial terms. And, while McMurtry occasionally drinks beer, he remains stoic onstage, whereas Blake overindulges in whiskey at all hours. There's no Tommy Sweet in McMurtry's life, nor could he ever be called a has-been. Never-quite-was is more like it, as McMurtry, the son of famed novelist and screenwriter Larry (Lonesome Dove) McMurtry, has yet to live up to the "next big thing" status bestowed on him when he burst out of the gates with his John Cougar Mellencamp-backed debut in the late '80s.
But there are similarities between fact and fiction, to be sure. McMurtry, too, is an obscenely gifted songwriter, and Texas has always been a great deal left of mainstream country's Rocky Top epicenter. Rooting oneself here can lead to legendary status, but rarely riches. Hence, McMurtry, like Blake, gigs constantly; when he's home in Austin, McMurtry plays every Wednesday at midnight at the 210-capacity Continental Club.
Both Blake and McMurtry could be described as seasoned, critically lauded, underappreciated Southwestern troubadours, seemingly unruffled by the brevity of their time in the limelight. The closest McMurtry got to such stardom was in 2005, when his workingman's protest song, "We Can't Make It Here," made a strong showing on the Americana charts. But despite a well-received follow-up album stacked to the hilt with anti-Bush anthems, such fortune hasn't yet come to pass.
"It's not like I can put a song out there that's going to break me to a higher strata," McMurtry concedes. "It's really grunt work, mostly. Sometimes you get an accident like 'We Can't Make It Here' that connects with a lot of people, but you can't do that as an act of will. Certainly, I want to play larger venues; it's all about growth. The problem is, at the next level [1,000-plus-capacity venues], it's really hard. You have to sell out every night or everybody loses."
These days, McMurtry plays more solo gigs than anything else—for "more money," he admits.
And while McMurtry's forays into politically charged songwriting have earned him his most widespread attention, they're far from his strength as a songwriter. Rather, the yarns he spins most successfully often involve the everyday struggles of downtrodden characters who live a few miles from freeway exits in the middle of nowhere. Those people make great characters, but don't buy too many records.
When McMurtry assembled the track list for 2009's Live in Europe, he eschewed the partisan tunes, instead packing the album with the sort of dark-shaded character studies that have kept his fan base both devoutly passionate and extremely limited. It's precisely the sort of move Bad Blake would make.
McMurtry is to Texas as Mellencamp is to Indiana or Springsteen is to Jersey—only with a sliver of the fame and none of the willingness to pander.