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James McMurtry on Record Store Day

April 18th, 2008 · No Comments

Record Store Day – a marketing concept disguised as a national celebration of independent music retail – is taking place for the first time tomorrow, April 19th.  There’s nothing wrong with the idea, of course.  Indie record stores have always been a great place to be exposed to new music, and have been a place where many of us have whiled away hours, days, and years.  However, the appearance of this commemoration at a time when indie stores have been whittled away to a precious few, seems – on the surface – like an act of desperation, as the remaining businesses attempt to flag the attention of today’s music consumers away from their computer screens.  And, no, I have not been guzzling at the fountain of bitterness.  Good luck, you remaining music retail guys…now you just need to come up with 364 more promotions as energized as this one.

Musicians from all corners of the industry have come out of the woodwork to offer their testmonials about the importance of music retail.  Singer and songwriter James McMurtry recorded a piece for National Public Radio to bring attention to this event.  Here it is:

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That’s so great.

McMurtry is right on target with his assessment: he has indeed had some difficulty with in-store performances.  I know this from experience.  While he was touring the country in support of his 2002 album, St. Mary of the Woods (an incredible album, by the way), we booked James and his band for an in-store at Laser’s Edge, the afternoon before his evening concert.  The band arrived about an hour early, which was pretty unusual.  Most artists would normally show up with barely 15 minutes breathing time, often barely five.  As they began loading in their equipment, McMurtry was quiet while he sized up the space.  He walked the length of the store, eyeballing the walls and aisle widths, walked back to the front of the store and stood silently looking toward the rear of the store.  “We’re going to set up here,” he said.  Now that you’ve heard the distinctive tone of his voice (above), you know what his proclamation sounded like.  He made a sweeping gesture with his arm that encompassed the narrow area in front of the check-out counter and the front door of the store.

You should know that we traditionally created a space for our in-store artists halfway down the length of the store, facing toward the middle.  In that place, any musician or singer could be heard clearly anywhere in the store, with or without amplification.  We had already moved tables and CD bins out of that space, in anticipation of that afternoon’s in-store.  “We have an area already set up for you over there, James,” I said to him.  I motioned to the area that he had already surveyed but rejected.

He said nothing, but was mentally preparing something.  You could practically hear the machinery in his brain churning away.  It showed through his downcast eyes, that coiled intensity.  “I think I know where my music will sound the best, and it will be from right here.”  It was apparently his final word.

This is what they call, in Westerns, the Mexican Stand-off.

I thought of the effort we had taken in rearranging the store for this event.  I wondered where in the hell we would put the store fixtures that we would need to move so that McMurtry could play at that end of the store.  Customers were beginning to show up.  Would we be required to rearrange the store around the customers?  I was uninterested in doing anything that would prevent us from making a sale, even if the blockade was playing a free rock show.  I was going to have to be uncharacteristically tough.

“You’ll be playing over there, James.”  Pause.  I used the Jedi mind trick: “Can I help you set up?”  I waited for him to explode, refusing to play.

He muttered one or two syllables, I’m not sure what they were.  Maybe he just grunted.  Either way, he said nothing I could decipher.  He picked up his guitar and walked to the back of the store.  He stood in the corner for five minutes or so, facing the wall, tuning his guitar.  He was either pouting or newly focused on the upcoming performance.  Or both.  I wasn’t necessarily thrilled with having won a game of hardball against someone whose artistry I admire.

Several minutes later, James McMurtry and his band played a blistering set that lasted between 45 minutes and an hour.  Their version of “Choctaw Bingo” alone lasted nearly 15 minutes.  They were amazing.  If you were there, I know you remember it.

And I imagine that James McMurtry was glad when it was over.

Tags: music

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