Backed by a stand-up bass, cello and occasionally a horn section, the 24-year-old McMurtry epitomizes the catch-all nature of Americana. But there's nothing haphazard about his artistic process. The son of revered songwriter James McMurtry, Curtis draws on a music composition degree and his experience composing modern-day chamber music for his own über-descriptive songs. "He's got so much more training than I did, and he knows theory really well," his father told Rolling Stone Country recently. "It's kind of hard for me to hang with him sometimes."
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"That’s still great music to me,” clarifies McMurtry, himself a white dude with a guitar. “But it’s not really the best music anymore.”
The 23-year-old McMurtry recently released his debut LP,Respectable Enemy, on Berkalin Records. It’s a remarkably assured and focused effort for someone his age--or any age, really. His voice is deep and creamy, like an Iced Turbo at Jo’s, the coffee shop across the street from Austin’s esteemed Continental Club, where he and his dad often play. Their sounds, however, are disparate, even though Curtis faithfully covers James' “Gulf Road” (“a perfect song,” says Curtis) onRespectable Enemy. Whereas James mainly sings as a means of conveying vivid, poetic stories, Curtis clearly places an equal premium on acute sonic elements, having earned a degree in ethnomusicology from Sarah Lawrence College. His compositions, laden with an array of strings and horns, are virtually impossible to pigeonhole, oscillating from chamber pop to jazz-funk (“Whiskey Sweat”) to folky Americana. If Magnetic Fields took a South Texas sabbatical, Respectable Enemy is what might emerge.
“My primary influences are songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits—and a ton of Ray Charles to balance out the wordy stuff,” says, McMurtry, who aspires to have his songs played on the radio, even though nothing on the radio sounds anything like his songs. “And I listen to a lot of 20th Century classical music, a lot of Stravinsky and more dissonant composers.”
Although McMurtry says he’s “been pretty lucky in love,” Respectable Enemy rarely ventures far from tales of relationships’ bitter ends. “It only takes a bad moment to get the inspiration and exaggerate it,” he explains. “If I have a sinister or mean thought, I tend to hang on to it, write it down and hopefully let it go. But I have an easier time bottling those feelings and using them to make a character than I have bottling the happy, in-love feelings. Those characters aren’t particularly interesting, but the sinister, mean characters have more to say.”
And yet, on Repectable Enemy’s best song, the gorgeous “Ezekiel,” in which McMurtry explores his upper register so successfully that you wish he’d explore it more, nothing so sinister as maturation drives a wedge between companions. Joined by the reedy Diana Burgess, McMurtry sings, “We grow, we grow, we grow, we grow, we grow until we don’t fit.” Such non-conformity might make for a rough domicile, but on Respectable Enemy, it’s harmonious as can be.