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James McMurtry Melds Literature and Lyrics

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The singer-songwriter plays the Troubadour on Tuesday and says his music has always been character-driven.

For a long time, James McMurtry was skeptical of the whole notion that songs could be described as literary. He figured it was just a label that journalists stuck on him because his father was the novelist Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove" and “The Last Picture Show." But when the younger McMurtry heard his fellow Texan Steve Earle describe songs as “literature you can digest while driving," it made sense. It also allowed him to think of his own writing as a job not unlike his dad's.

When James McMurtry comes to the Troubadour Tuesday, he will be emphasizing material from his new album, “Just Us Kids" (Lightning Rod), which could justifiably be described as the best collection of literary songs in several years. But it's not someone warbling earnest confessions over the lilting strum of an acoustic guitar. It's someone deadpanning unvarnished stories over the crackling boogie of an electric-guitar trio.

When McMurtry, dark corkscrews of hair spilling out of his black fedora, performed at Austin's South by Southwest Music Conference in March, he sounded a lot more like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Blasters than Paul Simon or John Darnielle.

“I won't pay to see a show that doesn't have a groove to it, so why would I put one out there?" he asked as he nursed a Guinness. “For a long time, when I was touring solo, I got put in that box, that solo-folk-singer-songwriter box. And when you get put in that box, it's hard to get out, even when you form a band. But I needed to get out -- not just to reach a wider audience but also because it's just more fun playing with a band."

The new album's literary qualities -- visual description, sharp dialogue and character detail -- are obvious on the title track. A 15-year-old kid sits in a park “ 'neath the vapor light," telling his pals that he's going to drop out of school, take the money from his swimming pool job and head for California. But it takes only a stanza for his friends to point out to this would-be rebel that he doesn't have a car and is no more likely to impress the girls in California than those at home.

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