The way to beat fundamentalism is to find yourself interred at a fundamentalist drug rehabilitation facility for eighteen months as a teenager. “I was only on pills for half as long,” says John Murry about the pharmaceutical speed he was given as a “slow” student at his Mississippi high school. “They gave me the pills and then they locked me up when I took them. I trafficked in righteous indignation when they let me out, but god damn it, it turned out they were right.” Years later, dead from heroin, San Francisco’s first responders showed him how Lazarus felt. A few times. Not born again, but not dead either.
The way to Catholicism if you’re John Murry is through Graham Greene and Walker Percy. Literature goes a long way for some people – the people who read it without prejudice and don’t parade their reading list around in place of personal substance. It’s in John Murry’s blood. He’s William Faulkner’s grandson. Or nephew. “I got all the way to being his son, once.” It depends whom you ask or who’s doing the talking. But John Murry can tell you which of his cousins or uncles came to find himself transmogrified into fictional characters in Faulkner’s novels. There’s no separation of fiction and reality in John Murry’s lineage. It’s all reality, just like Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. When asked what he liked to read, Faulkner always answered, “I read Don Quixote and The Bible every year.” The quote is different if you read it in the biographies. But that’s how it’s told in the Murry family and that’s how John Murry remembers it and John Murry doesn’t ever forget anything.
Tupelo, Mississippi is John Murry’s hometown. He immigrated to Oakland, California seven years ago for the Mexican Coca-Cola. “If you eat the rust off the bottleneck, it keeps you healthy. I learned that in England.” England because that’s where he goes to perform the death ballads he writes and records with Bob Frank. Rolling Stone’s Senior Editor David Fricke wrote of their World Without End “all bullets, blades and guilt without end…. With his low, hanging-judge drawl, Murry sounds as severe and modern as Leonard Cohen.... production here [Tim Mooney and John Murry] is as antique as a sepia print — but also as immediate as the anguish made elsewhere by the two.” Allan Jones of UNCUT Magazine called it a “dazzling collection of blasted country folk and grimly haunting murder ballads, shot through with harrowing images of death, damnation and eternal suffering...” People like to talk about what Jim Dickinson said. About John Murry’s records with Bob Frank, Jim Dickinson said, “The lost cry out in song. Cold as an assassin's blade. Burning with the heat of a pistol's breath. Dark and deep as the grave. This recording is timeless as death. It will haunt your dreams and follow you down the shadow-filled street just out of sight."
John Murry began recording The Graceless Age (produced by Murry, Tim Mooney, and Kevin Cubbins) four years ago in San Francisco. From there, he brought the tapes to Memphis and back again, adding layers of sound as thick as, what? San Francisco fog? Mississippi mud? No. That’s fucking ridiculous. As John Murry says, “No matter how many fuzz pedals I use, no matter how many synths, they’re always going to say ‘Mississippi’ and ‘southern rock.’” Of course territory figures into the songs of The Graceless Age, but good luck pigeonholing.
It’s a big sound at times – backup singers, panoramic guitar noise, sweet piano melodies, an orchestra of strings, bells, horns… – but no matter how ethereal or expansive, at the heart of each song is something simple maybe written on an acoustic guitar or upright piano about loss and solitude and bad fucking-up, not always with a guilty conscience. Listen to “California” with its mechanical loops over a constant, hypnotic guitar line. It’s pretty. It’s also easy to imagine riding alone over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland, generally disgusted with the scenery, as though it’s the scenery’s fault. Listen to “Little Colored Balloons” – sparse with piano, cello, mournful backup singing, and John Murry’s hoarse voice protesting too much. Drugs, bad choices, melody and countermelody.
John Murry knows what it sounds like to be Elvis, alone in Memphis, bloated with pills and mistakes, about to hit the floor. There’s a gospel choir and backwards guitar.
--Creston Lea, Author of "Wild Punch"
Burlington, Vermont, October 2010