Too often in music we tend to focus on the here and now, the young and the new. Who are the hot names that are rising up in the ranks? Who’s going to make a big splash in music in the coming months and years? Who has a chance to shove the garbage on the radio aside and finally put some substance on the airwaves? All this talk is understandable. It’s fun. It’s like betting on horses. Meanwhile, we take a similar stance to the legends of music, who at some point in their careers enjoyed overwhelming success. Their legacies loom large in popular culture, and so we elevate their stature for the rest of time whether their more immediate output is worthy or not. No matter how much their passion or talent might fade, we continue to hold it in high regard. But this is not always the best exercise for fleshing out who actually has the music most worthy of being recognized.
Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, these are the big, sexy, fast-rising names everybody likes to flaunt as their favorites these days. Whitey Morgan and the Turnpike Troubadours are names you’re likely to see moving up the ladder from continued momentum in the coming years. And they all are responsible for valiant musical efforts in 2015 that deserve to be distinguished from the crowd, as do Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers for their surprising effort Hold My Beer Vol. 1, or the British-based sisters of Ward Thomas who astounded with their debut, From Where We Stand.
Who would have though that Don Henley of all people would release one of the best country efforts in 2015, but that’s exactly what he did with Cass County. And an Alabama-based rapper named Yelawolf upstaged all of the ridiculous cultural appropriation eating away at the integrity of mainstream country more than the words of a legion of angry bloggers and critics ever could with Love Story, even if closed-minded country Bible thumpers can’t warm to the idea.
But did James McMurtry really put out the greatest country music record in 2015? James McMurtry? No offense, he’s a great songwriter and all, but he’s such a known quantity, right? He’s 53-years-old for crying out loud, with grey streaks in his hair and goatee. He was part of the previous generation of insurgent country artists—that whole, “alt-country” thing, whatever that was. And really, is he “country” at all? Wouldn’t he be categorized better as folk? Can you really compare his efforts to Chris Stapleton, who turned the entire country music world upside down in 2015?
You most certainly can. And despite the comparatively humble nature of his career, James McMurtry, and James McMurtry only, met the benchmark of releasing an unquestionable career best effort, which also comes close to, if not achieving, that level of quality that can be considered a “masterpiece.” It may be a songwriting-based effort, and it may be fey to some. But for withstanding the test of time, McMurtry’s Complicated Game is the project best apportioned to weather the onslaught the best.
As Saving Country Music said in the review of Complicated Game, “Six long years it took, and it may be six more before a fresh new batch arrives. But James McMurtry delivers on the promise of being one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters who can say the things that twist the rest of our tongues, create characters we never knew but feel hauntingly familiar, and fill us with an appreciation of life, both the good and the bad, and understand it is all part of the brilliant tapestry we’re all embedded in and unrolling before us.”
The alacrity with which McMurtry can make poetic genius out of the most mundane moments and people not only speaks to his singular talents as a wordsmith, but elevates these moments and people, and everyone else along with it, and reminds us that all lives matter and hold a beauty about them even through the most trying times and most terrible of conditions. It’s not just the superstars and fast risers of life who deserve to be canonized.
And something else astounding about Complicated Game is how out of nowhere, it rose up to become a 2015 contender. So even though it may seem like a dark horse pick to some, there has been a slowly emerging consensus behind this record. Every year the Saving Country Music nominees for Album of the Year are offered up with the idea that reader’s opinions will count for something in the final decision, and lo and behold, McMurtry received a plurality of positive feedback. He also came in at #3 on the reader-voted No Depression poll behind Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, and placed near the top of other end-of-year lists outside the echo chamber of mainstream music media.
James McMurtry is not going to be a player in the nominees for next year’s CMA Awards. We’re not going to be tracking his latest single to see what traction it gets on mainstream radio. And thank the Good Lord for that. But when it comes to songwriting, McMurtry is the one who set the bar high, and who will task all the others, including some of those CMA winners and #1 album recipients, to see if they can best it. But in 2015, none of them could.
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