James McMurtry is no stranger to the Tetons and neither is his music.
With past appearances at Targhee Festivals and Music on Mains as well as scattershot shows throughout the area, it’s evident that not only does his music resonate with the locals but the locale returns the favor in full. And listening to anyone song from his expansive, 30 year spanning catalogue makes this blatantly apparent; they occupy a realm both pessimistically aware and blissfully oblivious; rugged and distant, yet earnest and intimate. But as the man himself tells it, these are just stories and any similarities to instances or persons is purely coincidental and merely a product of his renowned wordsmithing.
McMurtry’s favorite character archetype is that of a downtrodden figure lost in the malaise of rural America and confounded by the rapidly evolving times.
His latest release, “State of the Union”, coming at the beginning of 2018, seems like a culmination of the three decades he’s spent exploring this character but also a rebuke to anyone who may have misguidedly identified with this type in the past. It’s immaculately timely, even almost a year and a half after its release.
It is unnerving to hear McMurtry slip into the shoes of the brother of a self-proclaimed fascist who rattles off a list of minority groups he resents before lamenting his status as a white male, but his songs have always carried an air of uneasiness to them and “State of the Union”’s satire-laden prose rightfully holds a place on that mantle. With a new record deal under his belt and an album promised for later this Summer, McMurtry has positioned himself to potentially release his most compelling and germane collection of songs yet.
He rightfully lampoons the white nationalist in “State of the Union” with a climactic confrontation at the Golden Corral on their mother’s 80th birthday.
The song ends with the narrator dreading the prospect of a holiday dinner with his family. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, but sometimes life can be unsatisfying and the truth hard to look at, but ultimately the song is about growth and forgiveness, as the main refrain poetically puts it, “It’s the state of the union, I guess/It’s always been iffy at best/We’re all in the family, the cursed and the blessed”.
The narrator may have failed to bring his brother to the light but McMurtry still has faith and the hope that “State of the Union” will do just that, not to a fictional radical, but those that walk among us. “There’s usually at least one [fascist] in every town,’’ McMurtry said of the song and it’s obvious this was the motive for its creation.
As a perennial touring musician, McMurtry has undoubtedly encountered people from all walks of life and this experience is invaluable in crafting believable tales soldered together by a common humanity. Music has the power to soothe and move, it can unify people during even the most divisive of times; McMurtry perhaps knows this better than anyone, and he’s determined to continue to do just that, like he has his entire career.
James McMurtry will play the Knotty Pine on August 13.