On a day off last week during his long stretch of touring, James McMurtry was planning to go hunt for turkeys. When told they’ve been taking over the East Side of Madison, where he will play Friday night, the singer-songwriter was pretty pragmatic about the situation.
“There’s a cure for that,” said McMurtry, who will perform at the High Noon Saloon.
The hunter in McMurtry is obvious from the get-go on his new release, “Complicated Game.” The opening lyric echoes in a way that would likely connect with listeners in Wisconsin:
Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done
In McMurtry’s deft hand, though, those lines from “Copper Canteen” are actually romantic, evoking a love that is as comfortable as a well-worn flannel shirt as the couple in the lyrics marches through the challenges life has thrown their way.
Life’s challenges are a familiar theme for McMurtry’s music, on the new release and before. “We Can’t Make It Here,” off his 2005 release “Childish Things,” looked at the struggles of life through the eyes of a Vietnam veteran, a Wal-Mart worker and other people frustrated with the way things are. It was named Song of the Year at the following year’s Americana Music Awards.
“Sometimes if you get on a soapbox like that it turns into a sermon, and nobody wants to hear it,” said McMurtry, 53. “That one struck a nerve with a lot of people, a lot of people saw themselves in it.”
Mostly, McMurtry’s songs are lined with characters, not messages. “Complicated Game” introduces listeners to a soldier who comes home to little waiting for him, in the song “South Dakota”; an Oklahoman transplanted to what seems to be a comfortable life with health benefits and soccer-playing kids, in “Long Island Sound”; and a well-worn man named Carlisle, fishing off-season to try to make ends meet, in “Carlisle’s Haul.”
Storytelling runs in McMurtry’s blood. He’s the son of famed novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, who brought “Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Brokeback Mountain” and other well-known works to the page and movie screen. Though raised in Virginia, James McMurtry is based in Texas, where he was born.
McMurtry’s songs aren’t autobiographical stories, he said, with the exception of “Carlisle’s Haul.” When visiting a friend who had a house along the Potomac River, the two were duck hunting one day and heard about someone running an off-season fishing operation. They checked it out and ended up helping to drag in the net.
“I don’t even know if that culture exists anymore,” McMurtry said. “They gave us a nice bluefish to take home, but it didn’t look like they were making any money that night.”
For the stories being told and hard times being described in “Complicated Game,” it’s a romantic record. There’s a man returning to a town where he’s haunted by a lost love, in “You Got to Me,” complete with a mournful acoustic lick by McMurtry. The narrator in “These Things I’ve Come to Know” sings with as much admiration as love for a tough, independent woman, and the man in “She Loves Me” is confident despite his partner having taken him up on their deal to find other companionship when they’re apart.
“It’s much more relationship-oriented than past stuff,” McMurtry said.
The reasons are more pragmatic than romantic, he said.
“Those are the songs that got finished in time to make the record,” he said.
“Complicated Game” is his first studio release since 2008’s “Just Us Kids.” The gap was mostly because he didn’t need to make a record, McMurtry said, and the road has been treating him pretty well. Though his crowd is older and buys a good amount of CDs, it’s still not what it once was by about half, he said.
“So we’ve got to stay on the road a lot longer than we used to, and we were doing all right until about two years ago when it started to taper off,” said McMurtry, who also played at the Stoughton Opera House just more than a year ago. “My agent and my publicist were having a harder time, so it was time to go back into the studio.
“I don’t mind. It’s a pretty good job. I don’t have to say, ‘You want fries with that?’ ”
It’s a job that will keep him on the road yet for some time. There’s a two-week break between when the East Coast and Midwest dates end and the West Coast dates begin, and McMurtry just might get around to a task he’s put off for a little too long.
“My tailgate still has blood on it,” he said after having nabbed a white-tail doe. “I didn’t wash it this year.”