In many ways, the long-enduring Live Oak Festival has been just like its namesake tree, uniting together families and friends from all over the world under the comforting cover and strengthening wisdom of country, bluegrass, folk, and Americana music. Now in its 28th year, the festival features some incredible performers, including two Americana artists, James McMurtry and Sarah Jarosz. Though very different, the two both view America through a lens darkly; they are witnesses of real struggle in a land of increasingly hard-fought opportunities. I spoke with them separately about their newest works, American darkness, and finding solace in the storm.
Described by a billboard in his hometown of Austin, Texas, as “the world’s most disinterested man,” the brilliant James McMurtry is known for his bleakly dispassionate observations of American working-class suffering and heartache. With songs documenting decaying fishing industries and veterans’ shattered lives, McMurtry is perhaps one of the best poets of plight since Bob Dylan, with songwriting chops and excellent guitar skills to match his sharp wit.
McMurtry takes a fairly no-nonsense approach to writing and touring alike. Touring is work — work to raise money once earned from album sales that now-changing business structures have reversed. “Certainly, I’m too old to retrain. This is the best job I’m going to get,” he said.
In song, lyrics fall along to the meter and fit within the cadence, beginning with a structure and a story following suit. He often writes from a humbled and nonjudgmental distance, letting his characters speak their truths without ever being too preachy or heavy-handed. “It’s dangerous if you try to get your own point across. You’re likely to write a sermon that way,” he said.
Not a grandstander, McMurtry’s instead a documentarian, remarking on loss and livelihood in an era of American unease and instability. He won some acclaim, particularly in the northeast, with Bush-era songs such as “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” that trace their lyrical roots to the mid-’90s disillusionment (e.g., the rage of the Oklahoma City bombing). He sees much of today’s pent-up angers as the effects of longstanding stresses. “I’ve been driving along for so long, seen all the bumper stickers out in the middle of nowhere, and that anger has been palpable for a long time. I think Donald Trump is deplorable, but he’s not the whole problem; there’s a market for Donald Trump, and there will be regardless of who will be elected in the fall,” he said.
Nowadays, Austin is harder to afford, and the email onslaught feels nonstop. But the interstates are improving, slowly, and health care’s a little more affordable than it once was. Through it all, McMurtry’s doing all right: steadfast, oak-like, a solemn but good-humored and compassionate observer of passing time.
Sarah Jarosz, a young Americana singer/songwriter from Wimberly, Texas, near Austin, often observes through a particularly personal lens. On the song “Jacqueline,” from her new album, Undercurrent, Jarosz reflects upon the life and spirit of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a means of contemplating her own; Jarosz has spent many an hour circling around Jackie’s namesake reservoir in Central Park. “I was so inspired by my time spent walking around the reservoir and thinking about her and the sadness that she endured in her life, and meditating on that,” she said. “When you look at New York on a map, the reservoir stands out. It’s shaped like the human heart in a way. It seems like this calm, steady, beating center of a crazy city.”
The songs on Undercurrent come from this place of stability in shifting emotional tides, a strength and solace amid separating forces. Jarosz wrote the majority of the tunes in the aftermath of a breakup and found her center while occupying a place of melancholic solitude in her new cityscape. Besides marking the closure of a relationship, the album also finds Jarosz at a place of expansion, coming into her own as a songwriter — this is her first all-originals record — and as a musician, having recently graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music.
She hopes to inspire a sense of hope in spite of the melancholy mood swings of life. This time of life has forced her to “occupy the aloneness and coming undone, but try to find the good things in that, too,” Jarosz said. She’s found “more of a hopeful take on it, that even when the world is terrible and things seem hard, you can try to push through.”
James McMurty plays on Saturday, June 18, 6:45-8 p.m., and Sarah Jarosz plays on Sunday, June 19, 5-6 p.m., at the Live Oak Music Festival (Live Oak Campground, 4600 CA-154), which runs June 17-19. Call (805) 781-3030 or visit liveoakfest.org.