Two great storytellers

James McMurtry, Dave Alvin to headline two area music festivals

DUMMERSTON — Songs of sex for the mind and songs of sex for the body - two of the best singers/songwriters/rockers in the Western world, in my humble opinion, will be within an hour's drive of us this summer.

Call it roots music or Americana or folk/rock/blues/gospel/bluegrass/alt-country music, it doesn't matter and I don't care. Just bring it on!

First, James McMurtry is doing two nights at the Roots on the River Festival in Bellows Falls this weekend. That puts the sardonic, brilliant, angry, wise, hilarious, scruffy, slightly obscene, and delightfully politically incorrect performer - the poet son of the novelist Larry McMurtry, and a man who can cram a universe into four lines and make them rhyme - well within reach.

That's sex for the mind.

Second - and certainly not least - the incendiary rocker (and my imaginary lover) Dave Alvin will be at the Green River Festival on July 13.

That's sex for the body.

Let's start with Roots on the River, going into its 15th year this year, which is a remarkable feat in itself. It was founded, more or less, to celebrate the marvelous singer-songwriter-rocker Fred Eaglesmith and his seemingly endless variety of backup bands. But like all good things, it fizzled out. Or rather, the Fredheads aged out. (They got too old to sit under a tent until midnight and listen to music without yawning and nodding off.)

This is a good thing, because for years the festival reserved all the good seats for these folks. And since they had been following Fred for too long, knew him personally, talked to him between songs (Fred talked back), knew all his lyrics and weren't afraid to sing along, the festival started getting a little too insider-y.

As Fred was repeating the same jokes from year to year, I stopped going. Then Fred, wisely, pulled out, too.

Now the festival has sprung back into unfettered fettle. McMurtry, who looks like Frank Zappa and comes from the capital city of Americana - Austin, Texas - has played the festival before. But now he's the host and he's helping festival promoter and prominent BF lawyer Ray Massucco to chose the acts - it's hard to come away without falling in love with a band you've never heard of before.

(I recommend the Black Lillies right off the bat. Try this:

McMurtry is Stephen King's favorite songwriter. Massucco told me that when King's local radio station, WKIT in Bangor, wouldn't play McMurtry's nine-minute-long “Choctaw Bingo,” King bought the station. Now he can hear McMurtry whenever he calls them up.

“The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation,” King said.

Massucco also told me that McMurtry's first CD, Too Long in the Wasteland, was the “soundtrack of my life for one or two years.” For me it was Where'd You Hide the Body. From that one, here's a part of “Levelland”:

“Flatter than a tabletop

Makes you wonder why they stopped here

Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one...

So they sunk some roots down in the dirt

To keep from blowin' off the earth

Built a town around here

And when the dust had all but cleared

They called it Levelland...

Daddy's cotton grows so high

Sucks the water table dry

Rolling sprinklers circle round

Bleedin' it to the bone

And I won't be here when it comes a day

It all dries up and blows away

I'd hang around just to see

But they never had much use for me in Levelland.”

* * *

And here's as good a description as any about relationships gone bust. It's from “Down Along the Delaware”:

“We get along in a manner of speaking

We barely have to speak at all

Small talk over take-out pizza

Silently passing in the hall

Post-It notes... and opposite shifts

Once in a blue moon we'll wake up in the same room

Thankful for these thy many gifts

We run by night, we live it and breathe it

We're the best of the best and I just don't care.”

* * *

“Choctaw Bingo (, which describes a family reunion, is like a reality TV series:

“Uncle Slayton's got his Texan pride

Back in the thickets with his Asian bride

He's got a Airstream trailer and a Holstein cow

His still makes whiskey 'cause he still knows how

He plays that Choctaw bingo every Friday night

You know he had to leave Texas but he won't say why...

Cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell

You know he likes his money he don't mind the smell.”

* * *

McMurtry wrote “We Can't Make It Here Anymore” in 2004 and it's still too true:

“ Vietnam vet with a cardboard sign

Sitting there by the left turn line

Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze

One leg missing, both hands free

No one's paying much mind to him

The V.A. budget's stretched so thin

And there's more comin' home from the Mideast war

We can't make it here anymore.”

* * *

Greenfield's (Mass.) Green River Festival is also having something of a new beginning. The music half of this long-running festival, Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds, this year broke away from his partnership with the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce.

So it's going to be much more of a music festival this year, and alcohol will be sold for the first time. Olsen has booked a weekend of impressive acts - you can see Norah Jones's side project, Puss N Boots, for example.

But for me it's all about Dave Alvin. With him it's not so much the lyrics (although they count) but the brilliant guitar combined with the bedroom voice. Alvin is a master who plays music honed over a lifetime of hard honky-tonk playing and low living. He's a real road warrior.

(He wrote the theme song for the TV show “Justified.” 'Nuff said.)

“This is my church,” Alvin once said at a concert. “This is where I come to pray, to mourn, and to celebrate.”

Alvin's stories will amaze you. To introduce “Johnny Ace is Dead,” for example, he tells about the great Fifties rocker Johnny Ace, who liked to give himself an energy bump every night before going on stage (at least that's the way Alvin tells the story; there are other versions).

The bump? He would take five bullets out of his gun, spin the barrel, put the gun to his temple and pull the trigger. On Christmas Day in 1954, with Big Mama Thornton watching, his luck ran out.

If there's a strong connection between music and sex (and who would argue?) then Alvin, who is a national treasure, personifies the link onstage. Lord knows I've lusted after enough male musicians (and a few female ones) to fill a long, long musical train. With Alvin, I drink in every chord he plays as if it's fine scotch whiskey.

It's not like I want to have sex with Dave Alvin; I just want to be his guitar.

Alvin and his brother Phil founded the seminal early L.A. punk roots band The Blasters in 1979. Then they argued, and stopped talking to each other for a few decades.

After Phil had a medical crisis that entailed bringing him back from the dead (or so I'm told), the brothers decided that life was too short and recorded a disc of Big Bill Broonzy blues. Now they're touring together again. See them now before one of them dies or they kill each other.

The through-line here? It's the kind of intelligence that offers both musical and mental stimulation.

“These are all singer-songwriters,” Massucco said. “We don't have anyone leading a band that is not writing the music for that band.”

McMurtry and Alvin. Two amazing performers. Just a short drive away. See you there.

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