The most anticipated Memphis-connected artist at this spring’s annual South By Southwest Music Festival — well, save for Justin Timberlake — may have been one who wasn’t on the schedule and barely even played.
In the run-up to the festival, the Times of London proclaimed that John Murry — a Tupelo native who got his musical start in Memphis and now lives in Oakland — “looks set to become one of the industry event’s breakout stars.” Esquire included Murry in its list of “50 acts you need to hear from SXSW.” A few weeks earlier, National Public Radio’s World Café had featured Murry as an “artist on the rise.” The day the festival began, Twitter verified Murry’s account, certifying him as a legitimate celebrity, even though he had fewer than 800 followers. The only problem? Murry not only didn’t have an official SXSW showcase, at the time, he didn’t even have any shows.
Murry was a reluctant participant and late commitment at the annual music-industry event, coaxed into attending by his manager and publicist but too late to apply for an official showcase. During the festival, he ended up playing four songs at a day party a couple of miles away from the main action (in the middle of being dragged to meet with journalists and booking agents), though he did sit in with friends at a couple of high-profile gigs the night after the festival officially ended.
Murry, now 33, first appeared on the Memphis music scene as a preternaturally gifted teenager, already owner of a deep, commanding voice and a literary songwriting sensibility. He spent time in a few aborted bands, played guitar in Lucero for a brief moment, and worked on some terrific solo demos that have never been released. Then he got married and followed his wife’s career to Oakland.
He reappeared in 2006 alongside another transplanted Memphis musician, veteran folk singer Bob Frank, with a collection of freshly written murder ballads — World Without End — that got tremendous press, particularly overseas. But the great solo record that once seemed inevitable was still missing.
Late last year, it finally emerged, more than six years in the making, with a limited U.K. release that whipped a portion of the British music press into a frenzy.
The Graceless Age — recorded primarily in Oakland with American Music Club’s Tim Mooney, who died last year, but finished and mastered in Memphis with local producer Kevin Cubbins — is the record longtime Murry watchers always knew he had in him. But it’s also a record many wish he didn’t have the inspiration to make.
The making of the album coincided with and is largely about a battle with addiction and its effects, which threatened to destroy Murry’s marriage and very nearly ended his life. It began, like so many of these stories do, with a medical procedure that led to a prescription painkiller addiction.
“Everything that hurt went away, and I became physically dependent on [the pills] very quickly,” Murry said in Austin, on the day after his initial performance.
The addiction to painkillers led to a separation from his wife, Lori, and daughter Evie, and that depression pushed Murry into using heroin.
“It was like the painkillers didn’t work. I think more than anything I care about Lori and Evie, so that was the most painful period of my life. But it was a Catch-22. I didn’t know what else to do. I really felt like there were two options: suicide or using a substance to kill the pain. And then it spiraled out of control. I don’t remember a lot of that time.”
Over the course of two-and-a-half years of on-and-off use, Murry suffered three overdoses. The last one, which he recounts on the 10-minute “Little Colored Balloons,” was nearly his end.
“I had been clean for a couple of weeks and wasn’t able to tolerate it, just living,” Murry remembers. “I went to this hotel on 16th Street [in San Francisco]. You, like, pay five bucks and you go into these flophouse dealer hotels. It was a cliché. But [the dealer] shot me with like half a gram, and I told him to go ahead and shoot me with the other half. Shooting a quarter of a gram would have probably killed me since I hadn’t been using. All I remember is he said, ‘Don’t sit down,’ but I couldn’t stand up. I was like a rag doll.”
Murry’s next memory is waking up in an ambulance with an adrenaline needle in his chest and hearing a medic say, “He’s not dead.”
Murry relapsed again briefly but then moved home to Tupelo for eight months, where he finished The Graceless Age and cleaned up, hopefully for good. He’s now approaching four years since the last time he used.
“I knew it wasn’t good for me to be around my daughter. But I also knew it wasn’t good for me to not be around my daughter. I’ll never really forgive myself for that,” he says.
Back with Lori and Evie, Murry is now a stay-at-home dad when he isn’t on tour, as interested in talking about coach-pitch baseball, elementary spelling bees, and Halloween costumes (Evie went as Joan Jett) as his career. But he’s got an album to promote, and it’s a good one.
The Graceless Age lives up to the grandeur of its title. It’s dark, almost unbearably so on “Little Colored Balloons,” but redemptive, evoking Bob Dylan, British space rock, and beat poets, and with a faint, unintentional echo of Otis Redding, another Memphis musician who once watched waves beat against the shore of San Francisco Bay and tried to figure things out. Nailing it all into place is Murry’s heavy, evocative drawl.
In Austin, Murry told the story of a food truck operator who couldn’t understand his order. “She thought I was drunk,” he said. But if his mumbling drawl is a curse when trying to order from a boutique taco vendor, it’s a musical gift.
The album’s lead single is “California,” and a staccato video for the song — seemingly inspired by the key lyric “This city’s a dream/But I’m wide awake” — nails the mood and meaning of the album. In it, Murry stumbles alone through the San Francisco streets in a technique that seems to slow him down and speed up passers-by. At one point, his wife Lori comes up behind him and pulls him back for a kiss. In another, Evie catches up and takes his hand. The climactic refrain is “I swear it ain’t you/It’s California I can’t stand.” Evie, now 8, insisted on wearing a California-themed hoodie in the video, the contrarian-in-training informing her dad, “You may hate California, but I don’t. I’m from here. I’m a California girl.”
The Graceless Age was re-released in Europe with a bonus disc and finally got an American debut in April. Now Murry finds himself trying to forge a career in a business he doesn’t trust and with a family he can no longer bear to leave for long.
Before launching an English and European tour in May, Murry returned home to Tupelo for Easter and to film a second video, for the song “Southern Sky,” with fellow Tupelo native and Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy.
While in Austin, Murry got some wise advice from Frank, who is among the many once considered a “next big thing” but who walked away from his best shot in the early ’70s. “Bob told me to treat it like a job as long as you don’t have to lie,” Murry says. “Lori and I have decided to give this a year from the April release. If it doesn’t work, I’ll drive a UPS truck.”