If Alex McMurray's songwriting seems a bit dour at timesokay, most of the timewell then that's totally intentional. "Like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar," he says, "I find sorrow to be quite a beautiful emotion. Loneliness can be nice." And he'd know. A New Orleans fixture since the '80s, the guitar slinger is now widely recognized as the embodiment of the downtown New Orleans lifestyle: sketchy bars, cracked sidewalks, fallen-down houses, tattered hearts, broken spirits, discarded chicken bones. He's often compared to Tom Waits; they both have whiskey-throated voices and share a curious ability to find inspiration in the degenerate, not to mention an obsession with the Ninth Ward. Except McMurray actually lives there.
His latest album, I Will Never Be Alone In This Land, continues his musical celebration of the city he calls home. "I've been trading time for chump change," he sings on the title track," but I will never be alone in this land." That seems a safe bet these days. McMurray has solidified his status as a kind of New Orleans institution, appearing three times as himself in the HBO series Treme, once in a ladies' blonde curly wig, leading a packed-in crowd at Ninth Ward haunt The Saturn Bar in a Mardi Gras Day sea-shanty sing-along. The show's third season concluded, appropriately, with "You've Got to Be Crazy to Live In This Town" from his 2009 album, How to Be a Cannonball. The song sums up nicely the way McMurray feels about New Orleansand perhaps himself.
It's hard to believe that, once upon a time, McMurray was a Jersey boy. He grew up in Red Bank and landed in New Orleans accidentally, as a student at Tulane. After falling in with the wrong crowd, he forewent any chance he may have had at a respectable life and got down in the trenches of the Big Easy music scene, where he remains to this day. Along the way he has washed dishes, dug ditches, signed and lost a record deal, joined and quit bands, substitute taught grade school, nearly died from a mysterious lung ailment and even moved away twiceonce to Japan, once to New York Cityyet none of these events affected his will to describe the peculiar beauty of the path he, first unwittingly, and later begrudgingly, chose. "I make a living doing music in the only music town of its kind," he says, "suffering the slings and arrows but endeavoring to come up smiling on Monday."
Lord knows that is not always possible, but hoards of fans have left McMurray's gigs happy. First as a sideman at legendary clubs like Maple Leaf Bar, Café Brasil and Tipitina's, and later as leader of the beloved '90s jazz-rock band Royal Fingerbowl, McMurray honed his skills in front of some of the toughest crowds imaginable, winning audiences over with witty, hard-boiled banter and soul-baring performances. In 2001, he even did a six-month stint singing sea shanties at Tokyo Disney, a period he calls "the loneliest in my life." Upon his return, he formed the Valparaiso Men's Chorus as a vehicle to revisit old sailor songs, and began playing with the vintage Jamaican pop band 007 (a super group with members of G. Love and Special Sauce, the Iguanas and the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars). He released his first solo album, Banjaxed, in 2004. He is also a member and mastermind of the brilliantly loose sousaphone-washboard-guitar trio, Tin Men, who have released two uncommon albums, Super Great Music for Modern Lovers (2003) and Freaks for Industry (2005), blessing New Orleanians with McMurray-style theme songs like "Cocaine Habit Blues," "Drunk and In Love" and "Still Drunk." All of McMurray's bands are yearly favorites at New Orleans' Big Easy Awards and Best of the Beat Awards, where Cannonball won Album of the Year in 2010.
In one incarnation or another, McMurray has played Jazz Fest every year since 1996, survived no less than two dozen Mardi Gras seasons, and lived to tell the tale in heartbreaking song. He is an organizer of the Jazz Fest season fringe music festival Chaz Fest, and currently plays in countless other New Orleans bands, including the Happy Talk Band, Debbie Davis, Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show, the Schatzy Band and The Geraniums.
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