The Saturday lineup at the 15th annual Roots on the River Festival begins and ends with two acts named McMurtry.
James, who has been performing for over a quarter century will be this year’s host and close out a long, strong day of Americana music. His son Curtis will launch the day at noon.
We asked James about his son’s songwriting. "Right now, he is mostly writing better than I am. ... The songs are a lot better structured than mine, I think. Of course, he is young, so he is writing a lot of them. The best thing I can do for him is stay out of his way!"
According to Curtis, his Dad is his greatest influence even though their songwriting approaches differ.
"A lot of what I know about inhabiting a character in a song I learned from listening to his songs. That said, my father has a different style than mine, both musically and lyrically. He tends to give you everything: what part of the world the story’s in, what kind of cigarettes the narrator smokes, the sort of business they’re in the middle of. His songs contain more details of time and place than many short stories (or even novels) do, and that’s his genius."
The younger McMurtry does not give the listener nearly as many details.
"I’ve been really inspired by Tin Pan Alley lyricists like Dorothy Fields (’The Way You Look Tonight’) where the singer really could be anyone anywhere, and as a result of that influence I don’t tend to give the listener nearly as many clues about who or where the narrator is. Some of my songs are story songs, but I’ve found that I usually try to scrape away details like what kinds of guns were used in the war (or even what war the character fought in) and just get to the meat of the emotions the narrator’s feeling. I also like songs where the listener doesn’t really have a fair chance of understanding exactly what’s happening. Sometimes I just want to give them a snapshot, come in in the middle and not let them see the beginning or the end of the situation."
As for playing on the same stage as his more famous father?
"It’s really fun to play in the same lineup as my dad. It’s something I got more comfortable with over the years. I did a short tour opening for him back in February and had a great time."
James McMurtry is currently touring with The Bottle Rockets -- an act that has been around nearly as long as he has and that has a similar musical approach.
It’s a pairing that is just right according to frontman Brian Henneman. "It’s ideal. Crosses over well. Same kinda deal. Songwriters with hot bands. Both on the grittier side of the line. And, if you can stand to look at one of us, you can stand to look at the other."
The Bottle Rockets’ approach to performing is also in line with McMurty.
"We try to stay at the top of our game, go for the throat," explained Henneman. "No slackers allowed."
The band is touring behind the re-release of its very first record which came out right around the time that Curtis McMurtry was born and preceded several changes in personnel in the band.
"It was low budget in a mad scramble, ‘cause we had two recording days lost by getting stuck in a snowstorm on the way to the recording session," recalled Henneman. "Between going to Athens, Georgia, and back, and getting stuck in the storm, we spent more time in our vehicle than in the studio. There’s been too many ups and downs to talk about here, but I think we’ve continually gotten better along the way. ... We stay low and go long."
As for the Bottle Rockets’ future? "Make a new album. See what happens. Same as it ever was. Not glamorous, but it’s kept us in business for over 20 years now."
Dave Madeloni writes a music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.