James McMurtry headlines Red River Folk Fest

Andy Jones
Posted 9/24/15

When the Red River Folk Festival starts with a welcome party this evening (Sept. 24) at 5 p.m., it will mark the beginning of the first year of what organizers are hoping becomes an annual event.

But ask those same organizers and they will quip …

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James McMurtry headlines Red River Folk Fest

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When the Red River Folk Festival starts with a welcome party this evening (Sept. 24) at 5 p.m., it will mark the beginning of the first year of what organizers are hoping becomes an annual event.

But ask those same organizers and they will quip that the Red River Folk Festival actually began in 1963. That was the year that three young musicians, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rick Fowler and Wayne Kidd arrived in town. They become known as Three Faces West and set a high bar for the next five decades of folk music in Northern New Mexico.

Others who’ve called Red River home (or home away from home) during that time include Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Michael Martin Murphy and B.W. Stephenson, a former lifeguard at the Red River public swimming pool, whose song “My Maria” was in the top 10 when he released his own version in 1973 (Brooks & Dunn would take the song all the way to No. 1, 23 years later).

And while none of those artists will be performing at the inaugural Red River Folk Festival, the organizers, who include Taos troubadour Max Gómez, have put together a lineup very much in the spirit of those who helped put the town on the musical map half a century ago.

The nine artists who will be performing all tend to dwell in the Americana sphere of today’s modern folk world, but Gómez says they all have some things in common.

“When I say folk songs, I mean songs that are written in story form, that are trying to better hardships in one way or another,” he says.

One of the artists performing, James McMurtry, has certainly made a name for himself during his quarter century as a working musician, writing songs that deal with any number of woes, from growing up in a place where you flat-don’t-fit in (“Levelland,” pun intended), to the financial hardships of the average working person in this country, and the politicians who’ve set them up for failure (“We Can’t Make It Here”).

McMurtry, whose attention to narrative detail alongside a penchant for strong and clever one-liners, has made him a songwriter’s songwriter (he counts Bob Dylan among his fans), was generous enough to talk to The Taos News recently about his upcoming trip to New Mexico, songwriting and some of the general difficulties of the music business.

Though he’s played Taos several times in the past, this will be McMurtry’s first performance in Red River, and Gómez is a primary reason why.

“Max is a great guy and a great performer. We had a good time with him,” McMurtry says about Gómez, who recently opened for McMurtry during a several-month tour that coincided with the release of “Complicated Game,” McMurtry’s ninth studio album that came out this past February.

When asked how he’s able to develop such strong characters over the course of a brief song, McMurtry offers an anecdote about “Ruby and Carlos,” a song off 2008’s “Just Us Kids.”

“I get a couple of lines and a melody in my head and I develop a character from there,” he says. “In ‘Ruby and Carlos,’ it all started with the line about the Mason Dumb-ass line.”

It was a simple joke offered by his sound man outside of a Waffle House, and from there McMurtry goes into a bit about how some Waffle Houses in the south run like NASA and others, not so much, and we’re no closer to knowing how a truly gifted songwriter created one of his best epics than we were when we started. But it’s doubtful any of the other songwriters included at the Red River Folk Festival can offer much more about the mysterious role inspiration plays in the songwriting process.

And rest assured, the muse has most certainly struck the other performing artists, who include Gómez and Taos Pueblo’s Robert Mirabal, as well as Gómez’ sometimes-collaborator Shawn Mullins, The Secret Sisters, Shannon McNally, Granville Automatic, Pot Creek String Band, hONEyhoUSe and Mike Addington.

Of the Secret Sisters, who are playing after Gómez, tonight (Sept. 24) at the The Motherlode Saloon, he says, “They are some of the best new, young singers that are making records today.”

He says he met the Secret Sisters (Laura and Lydia Rogers from Muscle Shoals, Alabama) on one of those cruise ship festivals, one called Cayamo, that sails across the Caribbean loaded with top-notch musicians, and people who shell out a lot of cash to see them.

“I was already a huge fan when their first record came out (2010’s “The Secret Sisters”),” he says, adding that he stayed in touch with the duo and called them when he and co-organizer Steve Heglund started booking for the festival. At the time, they were already booked but later became available. “I was really surprised we were able to get them.”

Gómez said he will be playing new songs during his set tonight (Sept. 24), some of which will end up on a new studio album he hopes to start recording during the next year.

Friday night (Sept. 25) features McNally — who is no stranger to Taos audiences —and Mullins — who has put out nine solid albums in a nearly 25-year career. He is perhaps best known for his 1998 single, “Lullaby.”

Mirabal, who is playing before McMurtry on Saturday night is a two-time Grammy winner and Taos Pueblo farmer, among many, many other endeavors.

The festival will take place at The Motherlode in the evenings, but earlier shows each day will take place at Brandenburg Park (in conjunction with Red River’s Aspencade cultural festival) and The Lost Love Saloon (a daily happy hour where any of the musicians can come in and jam at any time).

For more information about the Red River Folk Festival, visit redriverfolk.com

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