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The Patter of Little Feat: James McMurtry, who just released his own live album and has three upcoming nights at Henfling's, says Little Feat's 'Waiting for Columbus' is one of the live records that inspired him to become a musician.

McMurtry's Law

James McMurtry helps us clear up five popular misconceptions about live records, the universe and everything

By Steve Palopoli

James McMurtry is not always the most forthcoming guy. He tends to play it, as they say, close to the vest. This and his low-key vocal style and stage presence have led to some unfortunate misconceptions about him and his work. Though fans dig his vivid story songs and dry wit, some critics have called him "indifferent," an absolutely ludicrous statement to anyone who's paid attention to the precise craft that goes into his songwriting and performance, or heard about the exhaustive work he puts into his records.

He also gets classified as everything from folk to country, though every one of his records has been basically a rock & roll record, and on songs like "Paris" he sounds closer to Lou Reed than, say, Willie Nelson.

I recently talked to McMurtry--who plays three nights at Henfling's July 2, 3 and 4--about his new live album, Live in Aught-Three. Once again, he put the "indifferent" tag to shame. And while he was clearing up any doubt about his passion for his work, he also set me straight on a few other popular misconceptions. He may be a man of few words, but he's nothing if not direct.

Myth No. 1: Live records suck

McMurtry was shocked when I said I couldn't really see the point of live records. What I meant was that so many live records are badly recorded or lamely overdubbed that they end up sounding like poor imitations of the studio records while failing to capture the true energy of the live experience.

McMurtry wasn't having any of this.

"How old are you?" he asked me, suspiciously.

"Er ... 32," I said, with no clue as to where this was going.

"That's what the deal is," he said. "You're not old enough to remember good live records."

It was live records like Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus, McMurtry said, that made him want to become a musician in the first place.

"My favorite records are live records," he said. "Waiting For Columbus is incredible, and a lot of the Allman Brothers stuff. In the '70s, live was the shit, that's what everybody wanted. In the '80s, I guess people started putting out crappy live records, so they got a bad name."

After six studio albums and more than a decade of touring, he felt his own songs were ready for official live documentation.

"I think they've evolved away from what they were on the records. They've evolved through years of touring. And they're also arranged for a three-piece, which they're not on the records," he said. "It's a different vibe. You have the element of an audience, and that sort of becomes another instrument that you don't have in the studio."

After the interview, I remembered I actually like quite a few live albums--Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, the Velvet Underground's 1969, Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. I don't know what the hell I was thinking. Advantage: McMurtry.

Myth No. 2: James McMurtry is an artist

"I used to think I was an artist," says McMurtry on the live album. "Then I realized I was a beer salesman."

It's more than typically biting McMurtry wit.

"Without beer sales, there is no touring," he told me. "So how are you going to promote your record if you don't sell beer?"

That's a little more reality than a lot of musicians want to deal in. Doesn't freak McMurtry out, though. He's made his peace with it.

"I'm OK with it," he said with a chuckle. "A lot of people want my job."

Another surprise for an artist as literary as McMurtry--he is, after all, the kind of musician who draws fans who actually want to hear and think about what he's singing--is that he prefers playing bars to quiet "listening room"-type shows where the audience is straining to hear and savor his every word.

"I hate that," he said. "Nobody's dancing, nobody's visibly having a good time. It's like they're studyin'."

Myth No. 3: Albums get finished

"They say you don't finish records, you just stop," McMurtry said. "It's really like that. You get to where you can't see straight anymore, and if you mess with it, you'll screw it up. So that's when you put it out."

You might think this live album--the second of his own records that he's handled production duties for--might be a break from that. You'd have thought wrong.

"You still have to mix it, and you have to mix it right," he said. "I mixed this one twice, because I wasn't using enough crowd. The drummer said, 'Yeah, it sounds like a pretty good basic track on a studio record, but if you want it exciting, you gotta have more crowd.' You turn the room mics up higher in places, because the crowd gives you an extra dynamic element."

He took his inspiration from a musician known for some pretty out-there live albums.

"We did a show with David Lindley in Colorado sometime in 2003, and got a hold of one of his live records," he remembered. "It was a solo record he'd done at some little room in Japan, but it sounded really exciting because the hand-claps sounded like pistol shots the way he had 'em done."

Myth No. 4: The more you work on a song, the better it gets

This came up when I asked McMurtry about Townes Van Zandt, whose song "Rex's Blues" he covered on his 1998 album Walk Between the Raindrops, and included on the new live album. Considering their styles seem very different, I asked McMurtry if he considered Van Zandt an influence.

"Maybe I'll get more like him later," he said. "The thing about him was he didn't ever really question the muse. I don't think he ever shaped a song, I think he wrote it pretty much like he heard it initially. You've got to have confidence and abandon to be able to do that, and it seems to come with age more than anything."

Earlier in his career, he admitted, he had a constant problem with overworking songs. But McMurtry fans will remember the first time they heard 1997's It Had to Happen--hands down his best overall album--where he first really gave his songs some space, especially on the seven-minute-plus "No More Buffalo."

"Let 'em float a little bit. There was a point when I realized I liked songs that did that, that would lift," he said. "I was working too hard at 'em, and that can weigh a song down."

Myth No. 5: Larry McMurtry is slipping tapes to Stephen King

OK, no one is actually spreading this rumor, but it sounds juicy enough. The truth is it wasn't McMurtry's novelist father, Larry, who passed King the new live album, inspiring a recent glowing review by the gazillion-selling author in Entertainment Weekly. McMurtry doesn't know what inspired the bestselling part-time-musician to pick up the new album, but he's thankful that King, who owns an FM station in Bangor, Maine, has put him back on rock radio for the first time since his debut album.

"I don't know how it got to him. But it creates a good buzz within the industry. Record execs read that stuff."

Then he got that dryly wicked tone in his voice again. "And if I could get to Bangor, Maine, I could probably get laid."

James McMurtry & The Heartless Bastards perform at Henfling's Friday (July 2) and Saturday (July 3) at 9pm, and Sunday (July 4) at 7pm. Tickets are $14 advance, $16 at the door; 831.336.8811.

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From the June 30-July 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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