Although many of his characters are tormented, disillusioned, sad, despondent and often full of recrimination, singer-songwriter Curtis McMurtry himself is a rather chipper person.
On his Facebook page, the Austin, Texas, resident encourages people to catch one of his shows and hear “pretty songs about awful people!”
For his West Coast tour, which stops in at Vintage Wine Bar & Restaurant Tuesday night, he issued a call for anybody who has “friends/family out there who like sad songs and mean songs, please send them my way and I will get someone who is good at making cookies to make you cookies.”
McMurtry, 23, comes by his penchant for well-defined characters and economical, impactful writing naturally. It’s practically hard-wired into his DNA. He’s the son of folk-rock icon James McMurtry and the grandson of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove,” “Terms of Endearment” and dozens more).
Reached by phone during a tour stop in Pasadena, McMurtry said he has a close relationship with both his father and grandfather, but their influences were spread more “through osmosis rather than being taught by either of them.”
James McMurtry’s first record, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” was released a year before McMurtry was born. The younger McMurtry’s first instrument was the saxophone, which he began playing at age 10, and he didn’t actively pursue the guitar until he was 11.
“I remember being around a lot of my dad’s gigs, but I didn’t think much of it. As a kid, I was mostly interested in action figures. It didn’t really matter that dad was half a rock star,” McMurtry said.
An appreciation of his dad’s work, and others, picked up when McMurtry enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY, where he studied music, composition and ethnomusicology. “That’s been very beneficial for my songwriting,” McMurtry said of his research into music in its cultural context. “Any time a musician gets exposed to music they wouldn’t hear otherwise is a good thing.”
With his own writing, on vivid display in his debut album, “Respectable Enemy,” McMurtry concedes that he has “an easier time writing sad or mean songs … those emotions are easier to bottle; they’re very easy emotions to capture or use.
“If you’re jealous of someone for 10 minutes, that’s easy. If you’re in love with someone for six years, that’s tricky. It’s very easy to be sinister.
“The songs on this record are songs about villains who think they are victims. Ultimately, most of my characters are very much to blame for whatever they have. We just get the snapshot of somebody in a really dark place—we get their take on what led them there.”
The protagonist in “Down to the Wire” is a good example:
You hold me when you want to
I kiss you out of spite
we fight for what we want, Dear
not for what is right
and for all my grand ambition
what have I now to show
no matter how I struggled
you always brought me low
McMurtry said he penned “Foxhole” in the summer of 2012, a year after hearing a report on the growing number of deaths by suicide among soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I don’t think I was consciously trying to write a song about that issue, but it stuck with me.”
I used to think our love was but a trifle
I was surprised it lasted through the month of May
but now I am too old to lift my rifle
and you’re still here to watch me waste away
my love I’ve lost so many friends since we got married
and I know that you could say the same to me
I believe I was the first to ever catch you
perhaps I should be the first to set you free
Self-loathing seems to be the order of the day in “Lonely in the Beehive”:
oh she looks so good
from far away
but once you get up close you see the cracks as clear as day
I’ve seen enough
but I can’t bring myself to leave
I just hope to god no part of you becomes a part of me
The wounded lover in “Chaplinesque,” which McMurtry wrote at age 17, speaks in a harsh, honest voice: “What a respectable enemy you turned out to be, and here I thought you were just a bad friend.”
The couple in “Moriah” harken to an old-timey Western, “very much Bonnie and Clyde or Billy the Kid, a lot of references from Western movies and my grandfather’s writing and such,” McMurtry said.
We hold on to each other
in the grit and the mud
my hands covered with blisters
your shirt covered in blood
you thought the vultures were angels
come to take us away
off into the sunset
at the last of the day
storytelling. He’s an absurd creature who you can’t stop staring at and wanting to listen to.”
Joe Pug, another Austin-based songwriter, has taken note of the youngster. “Like few songwriters his age, Curtis truly understands what a big tent American music actually is.
While most modern Americana practitioners search for another rough edge to sand down, his debut is refreshingly unsymmetrical and beautiful.”
If you go: Vintage Wine Bar & Restaurant is located at 1790 Market St. in downtown Redding at the intersection of Sacramento and Market streets. McMurtry’s show starts at 7 p.m. and reservations are available by calling 229-9449. Tickets are $10.
Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.