For the past 10 years, James McMurtry has spent his energy penning great songs and trying to avoid a certain Dallas sports-radio talk-show host. We both wish things were different.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome James McMurtry." David Lettermen then motioned to a long-haired fellow in round glasses who sawed out the first few chords of an unsteady rock song. If he had just glanced to his right, in the blurred periphery beyond the potency of his lenses, McMurtry could have made out the bobbing figure of Paul Shaffer leading The World's Most Dangerous Band in playing an actual James McMurtry composition. Backing him up. He might have felt on top of the world. He might have felt "arrived." He might have even felt...good.
I was 18 that night in 1989, watching Late Night With David Letterman and hoping James was feeling all of those things. But the strain in his voice and the vein in his forehead indicated he was all too aware that he wasn't in Texas anymore. The song lurched on, and the natural shakiness in McMurtry's voice began to take on Katherine Hepburn proportions. His forehead vein looked like a link sausage threatening to come untucked from his skin, having grown increasingly weary of carrying the load back to his heart. If only Letterman were in 3D, and all the little Late Night junkies like me could have seen that vessel burst, hurtling played-out hemoglobin right out of New York City to spray our wide-eyed faces in the heartland.
The vessel didn't burst, but the balloon did. It was the balloon that many of us had inflated for McMurtry. The status of "big-time" wasn't in the deck. McMurtry released his first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, in 1989, about the time my high-school sweetheart was choosing college over me. Our common ground was evaporating with the lack of a mutual social scene, so I tried everything I could to remain relevant to her. I even listened to her increasingly eclectic tastes in music that had the taint of the University of Texas all over it. Among the CDs exported and imposed upon me was McMurtry's debut. My first impression of McMurtry was a common one: "He can't sing." It's an odd thing about some voices. Kinda like beer -- nobody likes it at first, but once you feel its effects, you begin to enjoy the taste. And, boy, did his songs intoxicate. He painted the pictures I had stored in my head since youth. So, of course, I became a fanatical James McMurtry follower, hitting every show I could and waiting for the moment when I could say, "I knew him when." But that moment never came. Eleven years and four more albums have come since the first, and James has never been back on Letterman or even Austin City Limits. The ship to superstardom on which we had all booked him passage never arrived, and we are all left scratching our heads as to why.
Maybe this is the reason: That vein has always been more comfortable in the smoky haze of a Texas honky-tonk than it ever was beneath the burning spotlights of 30 Rock. Fortunately for all of us, James doesn't run near the risk of aneurysm when he straps on that Guild and plays those songs for 150 loyalists with Shiner on their breath and NPR on their presets. A perfect mix of pretension and honesty.
By the way, James McMurtry hates me. During the last decade I've made it a practice to hang out after every one of his shows I attend and conveniently run into him before the sweat dries. Naturally taciturn and not given to small talk, I always regret it's all I have to offer him. He is always cordial, and our conversation is always the same:
"Hey, James, I don't know if you remember me..."
"Oh, yeah -- the preacher's boy."
To my amazement he always remembers the night, seven years ago, when I told him my father's occupation in a cloud of whiskey well past last call. I have since told him I am a sports-radio talk-show host, but his recognition is always the same: The preacher's boy. It seems that, to him, my father's occupation has defined me much more than my own -- a situation with which I am sure he is familiar. Perhaps on Friday night, if the amber is flowing and air is stale enough, I'll stick around long enough to tell him about high-school sweethearts, Baptist preachers, and the time I saw him on Letterman and wished he had gotten mega-famous. Doubt he wants to hear it.