Taking cues from blues, folk and great songwriters, Luke McGlathery is making some new sounds in Fort Worth. A full-time musician for four years, he performs almost every night, often as background music. But his new album, Life Ain’t Hard, requires your full attention. McGlathery has learned how to speak with music.
“If people are listening they tend to like it,” McGlathery says. “Sometimes I’m the jukebox in the background. Sometimes I interact with the crowd.” He performs in all sorts of bars and restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth. But with simple yet carefully crafted, plainspoken lyrics and a renewed focus on enunciation, McGlathery shows songwriting skills that are very effective at communicating with listeners. Having something to say in a place where no one is listening is a predicament, but he has an album release show at Lola’s this Sunday, February 28.
McGlathery has been fending for himself since he was 16. Now he's 25: He sleeps in, writes songs, waits to perform and stays out late. Sometimes shows are booked just a day or two in advance. He often plays solo for three hours a night, but sometimes he is part of a trio and he never seems to have a drummer. But an unpredictable lifestyle is the only kind he has ever known.
Growing up, his address changed several times, often causing him to change schools. The only constant then was playing his guitar, and he kept playing it. He seems to have a hard time imagining a different lifestyle. The idea is simply to stick to music no matter what happens. “It’s kind of like a party that never ends,” McGlathery reflects. “But you have to stay busy or you will spend all your money on alcohol. And remember that people who aren’t that great are trying just as hard to make it.”
From his vocal delivery, you would never guess his age. McGlathery sings lyrics like, “No, I ain’t never loved nobody, nobody ever loved me” and "The day I split in two was the day I left you," as if he is speaking with the weight of more years of life. And he definitely means whatever he is saying. “Where Have You Been?” sounds almost playful, but you have to wonder about the premise. He leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but the intensity of his voice suggests that the song is about a very specific incident.
Life Ain’t Hard is a unique blend. McGlathery leads with vocals and guitar with a sensibility that is both folk and blues. But violin and accordion accompaniment are prominent throughout the album. It goes a long way, even bringing zydeco and western swing to mind once or twice. What is that sound? McGlathery has no idea; he says it is what he got after spending years playing with a bunch of different musicians and writing songs. “I don’t know exactly what it’s called,” says McGlathery. “But it’s fun.” He usually calls it folk music.
With half of his set typically featuring original songs, McGlathery thinks the need to write new songs — so he doesn’t have to keep playing old ones every night — may have steered him toward this new sound. After performing for the last four years, McGlathery brought chops to the studio that capture the energy of live music. He also didn’t want to play anything that sounded like something he has played a hundred times.
Great country songwriters from the past, like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, heavily influence McGlathery. But he is glad his music does not suffer comparisons to most of the contemporary country music he hears on radio stations today. “The red dirt stuff is crap,” he says. ”It’s like pop music with really bad country lyrics. It’s not even country anymore, it’s pop with a country accent.”
“It all sounds the same now,” McGlathery says. Decades ago, people never wondered who was playing on the country music station; there was no confusing Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash with anyone. “It’s probably not even the singer’s real voice, they probably modify it in some way.”
“I’m trying to dig deeper than singing about horses and trucks and girls,” McGlathery continues. “It’s not putting on a cowboy hat, some boots, and pretending you are from the country. With Life Ain’t Hard, McGlathery aspires to write songs like Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt, marveling at how their songs are both complex and accessible.