Memphis-bred Murry confronts hard truths

Debut solo album about drug addiction

John Murry: “Life clings so tightly to that record that it’s very difficult to separate it from life.” Photo by Amoreena Berg.

John Murry: “Life clings so tightly to that record that it’s very difficult to separate it from life.” Photo by Amoreena Berg.

John Murry is a man out of time.

Not in the mortality sense. After struggling with substance abuse, the Mississippi-born singer-songwriter, who performs Saturday at Newby’s, is clean and sober, newly dedicated to be being the best father and husband he can be to his wife and daughter back home in Oakland, Calif.

But in the sense of being out of sync with the mores and attitudes of his era, the 33-year-old is most definitely out of his time. This is an artist, after all, who, with his frequent collaborator, fellow former Memphian and now Oakland resident Bob Frank, recorded an entire album of historical folk/murder ballads.

Murry’s discomfort with modern times is right there in the title of his debut solo album, the acclaimed The Graceless Age, released in the U.S. this past spring after an initial overseas release. Six years in the making, the record is a harrowing confession of Murry’s drug addiction, a long struggle that nearly lost him his family.

“I really created that record strung out on heroin with this sort of insane belief that I could make things right by telling the truth,” says Murry of the record, the most celebrated track from which is the epic “Little Colored Balloons” about scoring drugs in San Francisco’s Mission District and an ensuing overdose. “Life clings so tightly to that record that it’s very difficult to separate it from life.”

Murry was raised in Tupelo by a family distantly related to literary giant William Faulkner. When he was a teenager, his parents sent him to rehab in Memphis. Once out, he stayed and threw himself into the local music scene, playing in bands such as the Dillingers and, for a brief time, Lucero.

Eventually, Murry married and moved out west. But in 2006 he re-emerged on the music scene with the murder ballad record World Without End, his first collaboration with Frank, who has become something of a mentor for him. A former cohort of Jim Dickinson, Frank recorded an acclaimed major-label album in 1972 before walking away from the business for 30 years.

“Bob told me he threw that deal, just very consciously tossed it away,” says Murry. “More recently he told me he was afraid because they were calling him all these things: the barefoot Randy Newman and the Southern Bob Dylan. Well, neither one of us is so deluded that we believe what people write about us.”

Forty years later, however, Murry finds himself in a similar position with The Graceless Age. The record has won critical raves if not huge audiences for a sound evocative of Uncle Tupelo, Warren Zevon, and, yes, Bob Dylan.

Several British publications gave it top scores and artists such as Joe Henry and David Byrne are fans.

“If Cormac McCarthy had written songs, he’d write songs like John Murry,” says Memphis producer Kevin Cubbins, who helped Murry complete the record after original producer Tim Mooney passed away in June 2012. Cubbins also produced some of Murry’s early, unreleased local efforts. He will be present Saturday to record Murry’s set with veteran Memphis musicians Paul Taylor and Andy Grooms in his capacity as producer for the syndicated radio program “Beale Street Caravan.”

“The first song I ever listened to was that song ‘California,’” says Cubbins. “ I was listening to the lyrics about Joan of Arc and the songbirds breaking their throats and the black banners flying, and I thought, damn, I have to do this.”

Murry himself is uncomfortable with the praise that has been heaped upon him, more concerned with turning music into a living that can support his family. He and his wife have made a pact to give it a year from the date of the U.S. release to try and make it work.

“Then maybe I’ll drive a delivery truck,” says Murry, who is nevertheless using his time in Memphis to work on a follow-up record with Cubbins, a more concise effort that mines some of the same lyrical territory as The Graceless Age. “I’ll never stop writing songs or recording them, I think my sanity lies in making art.”

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John Murry

Saturday at Newby’s, 539 S. Highland. Doors: 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $10, available in advance online at newbysmemphis.com. 901-452-8408.

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