Singer-songwriter enthusiasts rejoice: James McMurtry will open for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on an extensive tour together in early 2018. The highly lauded tunesmiths will launch the run at the Criterion in Oklahoma City on January 4 and serpentine for weeks throughout the South, Midwest and East Coast before concluding at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia on February 17. Major markets on this exciting tour include the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.
“James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth,” Isbell says, “and these days he’s working at the top of his game.”
The McMurtry-Isbell combination offers fans lyrical and musical depth and weight few tours can match. After all, they’ve both been hailed as the finest songwriters of their respective generations whose latest releases — McMurtry’s Complicated Game and Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound — show them in absolutely peak form. “James has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next,” Isbell enthuses. “I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.” “Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriter-performers working today,” McMurtry counters, “and unlike most of us, he seems to have a work ethic to match. I will be studying him from the wings on this run.”
McMurtry continues riding waves of universal acclaim for Complicated Game. “At a stage where most veteran musicians fall into a groove or rut, McMurtry continues to surprise,” Texas Music magazine recently noted. “[Complicated Game] is a collection of narratives as sharply observed as any from McMurtry, but with a contemplative depth that comes with maturity.” Indeed, the Austin resident’s latest collection spotlights a singular craftsman as he turns inward (“These Things I’ve Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman.”
Either way, McMurtry spins his stories with a novelist’s eye (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter’s precision (“She Loves Me”) throughout. “[McMurtry] takes listeners on a road trip of unprecedented geographic and emotional scope,” No Depression raved of Complicated Game. “Lyrically, the album is wise and adventurous, with McMurtry — who’s not prone to autobiographical tales — credibly inhabiting characters from all walks of life.” “[McMurtry] fuses wry, literate observations about the world with the snarl of barroom rock,” National Public Radio echoed. “The result is at times sardonic, subversive and funny, but often vulnerable and always poignant.”
Longtime fans know McMurtry’s vibrant vignettes have turned heads for more than a quarter-century now. His critically successful first album Too Long in the Wasteland (1989), which was produced by John Mellencamp, marked the beginning of a series of acclaimed projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill Records. In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video for “Where’d You Hide the Body.” Additionally, It Had To Happen (1997) received the American Indie Award for Best Americana Album. In his long career, songs like “Childish Things,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “Peter Pan,” “Levelland,” and “Out Here in the Middle” only begin the list of high watermarks. (Yes, Robert Earl Keen covered those last two, “Levelland” remaining a live staple.) Childish Things (2005) scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart. In 2006, it won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year. The track “We Can’t Make It Here” was named that rapidly rising organization’s Song of the Year, and was cited among The Nation’s “Best Protest Songs Ever.” Just Us Kids (2008) earned McMurtry his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Just Us Kids alone includes fan favorites “Hurricane Party,” “Ruby and Carlos” and “You’d a Thought.” Songs detailing the lives of everyday people, like “Fireline Road,” pierce listeners’ hearts with sharp sociopolitical commentary. “James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation,” said Stephen King.
Meanwhile, Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound follows their critically acclaimed Something More Than Free (2015), which won two Grammy Awards (Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song, “24 Frames”) and two Americana Music Association Awards (Album of the Year and Song of the Year, “24 Frames”). Nashville Sound’s ten tracks address real-life subjects, including cultural privilege, politics, love, and mortality. The release also finds Isbell and his bandmates returning to their rock roots full force.
Isbell steadily has become one the most respected and celebrated songwriters working today. “With his honeysuckle drawl and unrivaled knack for lyrical detail,” Rolling Stone magazine noted, “Jason Isbell is arguably the most revered roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation. Isbell sings of the every day human condition with thoughtful, heartfelt, and sometimes brutal honesty, and the new album is no exception.”
The Nashville Sound was recorded at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A and produced by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb, who also produced Something More Than Free as well as Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern. The Nashville Sound is the first official Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album since 2011’s Here We Rest. Isbell’s band the 400 Unit features Derry deBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Amanda Shires (fiddle) and Sadler Vaden (guitar). The group’s five-night stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in October sold out in less than three hours.
McMurtry’s no stranger to sold-out venues himself. He’s been packing houses with the James McMurtry Band since the release of his first record. In 2004, the popular Live in Aught-Three, on Compadre Records, demonstrated McMurtry & co.’s power on the road. In 2009, the CD/DVD Live in Europe was released, capturing the band’s first European tour and extraordinary live set. Along with seasoned band members Ronnie Johnson, Daren Hess, and Tim Holt, the disc features special guests Ian McLagan (the late Faces keyboardist and longtime Austin fixture) and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers, Skunks).
McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: “Much attention is paid to James McMurtry’s lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player … serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band.”