Music Reviews

James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards

Live in Aught-Three


Live in Aught-Three is a long overdue live album from a fixture on the Austin bar circuit. Since 1989’s Too Long In the Wasteland, the son of author Larry McMurtry has introduced us to a world of colorful losers from the underbelly of the American west. He’s done so with an affinity for the terse, telling details and a wry, bone dry ironic sensibility. Oh yes, and a mastery of the guitar fretboard. McMurtry’s laconic, world-weary vocal delivery makes him sound like sort of a Texas Troubadour Lou Reed.

Recorded at shows in Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Asheville, North Carolina, Live in Aught-Three shows McMurtry at the top of his game. “Write it off as one more half-sold show,” he sings on the title track from his most recent studio effort Saint Mary of the Woods. “If they’ve already seen your best/ they can do without the rest don’t you know.” But you’ll get no warmed-over performances here.

Bassist Ronnie Johnson and drummer Daren Hess figure prominently on “Rachel’s Song,” a tune about a guy who can’t seem to stop drinking after a near fatal car crash. McMurtry’s guitar tone is a marvel on “Fraulein O” (“For All I Know”) and Johnson contributes nice harmonies. McMurtry’s monotone deadpan wit on tunes like “Red Dress” is sure to make you chuckle. “Yes I’m drunk but damn you’re ugly / tell ya one thing yes I will / tomorrow morning I’ll be sober / you’ll be just as ugly still,” he sings.

You get the feeling one of the things that makes McMurtry great is he’s acutely aware of his place in the world. Introducing one song here he says: “I used to think I was an artist. Come to find out I’m a beer salesman.”

On the live set’s centerpiece “Out Here in the Middle,” he seems to espouse the virtues of the country’s mid-section and the drawbacks of big city life. But he does so in his own sardonic way: “We got justification for wealth and greed / amber waves of grain and bathtub speed / now we even got Starbucks / what else ya need?”

He then ups the ante with, as he terms it, “a song about the North Texas-Southern Oklahoma methamphetamine industry.” “Choctaw Bingo” is actually a dense family reunion travelogue that introduces us to, among others, a guy who cooks crystal meth because the ‘shine don’t sell.

The lone new track here is the solo acoustic “Lights of Cheyenne,” which is as great as anything McMurtry has done previously. The live set also includes the classic “Levelland,” once covered by fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen. McMurtry pays tribute to another Texas great, Townes Van Zandt, with a set-closing cover of “Rex’s Blues.” He dips into his back catalogue for a lengthy, guitar-showcasing take on “Too Long in the Wasteland.” And he turns “I’m Not From Here” (from 1992’s excellent Candyland) into a funky guitar groove. “On to some bright future somewhere/down the road to points unknown,” he sings. Wherever that road takes him, it’s no doubt McMurtry will find something interesting to tell us about.

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