Saturday afternoon I was playing with Braydon, my brilliant, beautiful grandson, anticipating a quiet evening at home, when Scott called wanting to know if we were planning to go to James McMurtry at Cain’s that evening. Oops. Louise, especially, been looking forward to it for months because she has a thing for ‘smart badboys’, but we’d thought it was still weeks away. Yes, yes, yes! we replied. Scott was thrilled that he wouldn’t have to go alone. We called Braydon’s daddy and told him to come get Braydon by 8 o’clock because we had a prior engagement.
There followed no less than six frantic phone calls from Scott over the next two hours. They were sold out. They had only two tickets left, but there were three of us. He was going to pull the “Folk Salad Card”. He was preparing to beg. Begging had worked! He’d be at Sound Pony having a Marshall’s & could we bring him a Big Mac because he, the poor beggar, hadn’t had anything to eat. Louise put her lips on and we left. Soon we were sitting at the bar and Scott and I were having the McDonalds Happy Meal for Adults, which is a quarter pounder with cheese, French fries, and Marshall’s Pilsner. We shared our fries with Aaron the bartender. Louise ordered a tequila. “Do you want the salt and the lime?” “If it comes in a kit, I want the whole kit.” She drank two. Smart badgirl.
On to McMurtry. It was crowded but not to the extent that would alarm a fire inspector. McMurtry took the stage and delivered songs for the next two hours with the unmovable stern countenance of an old testament prophet with bad news for sinners. When the first song began, a woman had a seizure and was carried out through the crowd, neck arched, shoes missing. Let’s hope she was okay. He wore a dark fedora, shoulder length dark curly hair, spectacles, and a long goatee & moustache. Louise thought he looked like a rabbi. Rabbi McMurtry? Oy.
Looking around the room, Scott and I decided, by a logic that even we don’t understand, that the room was filled with the Folk Salad Demographic. These were surely our listeners. One other thing we noticed about the crowd. It was populated with an unusual number of large men. Why? It’s a mystery. What about James McMurtry’s music appeals to large men? Large men who insist on standing shoulder to shoulder between you and the stage? All we could see for most of the first set was a continent of backs grinding against each other like tectonic plates.
Most of his set was songs from his latest “Just Us Kids” which I hadn’t yet listened to. He’s a brilliant lyricist, on a par with Townes Van Zandt. He’s also a first rate guitarist. The music –Two guitars, bass and drums— is very lean, with a powerful, driving, purifying groove. Many of the crowd knew all the words to all the songs. The song everyone was waiting for, of course, was the Oklahoma epic, “Choctaw Bingo”, and when we first heard those opening chords a mighty roar rose up. Large men pumped their fists into the air and high-fived. And the line in that song that everyone was especially waiting for, the line about getting in between his two sexpot cousins with a hard-on like a bodark fencepost that you could hang a gate from, brought the crowd to a fever pitch. Hats were thrown into the air. Women howled. A fight erupted up front when two plates collided, which surprised and amused McMurtry enough to force a quick grin. I’m not making any of this up.
When the set ended, McMurtry thanked the crowd, stepped offstage, the lights came up, and he fended off well-wishers without breaking stride or making eye contact as he strode to the bar, ordered a whiskey, and exited to the greenroom. The band had managed to slip away while all eyes were on him. He enjoyed his drink (we presume) in a leisurely fashion as the crowd chanted his name over the house music. After several minutes, long enough to make us wonder, he re-emerged for his encore. This is how an encore really should be done, don’t you think? Make ‘em wonder.
We left during the encore. It was not quite midnight when we got into bed. “The room is spinning,” Louise said. “Close your eyes,” I replied.