The four-day event, now in its 16th year, is a must-stop destination for touring Americana/roots acts.
Murry’s two shows are eagerly anticipated by a discerning audience. His debut solo album, The Graceless Age, chronicles an unhappy childhood in Mississippi and a battle with substance abuse in California.
Hailed as a masterpiece upon its release, late last year, by critics on this side of the Atlantic, it’s only now being released in the US. The record explores a bleak period for Murry: an addiction to pain killers that led to separation from his wife and daughter. He survived a heroin overdose, which is lucidly recounted in the track ‘Little Colored Balloons’.
He recovered and was reunited with his wife and daughter. He recorded The Graceless Age over four years, co-producing with the late Tim Mooney, the drummer with American Music Club, and Kevin Cubbins.
This isn’t the Tupelo, Mississippi native’s first appearance at the Kilkenny Roots Festival. He and Bob Frank played it in 2007, during a tour to promote their album, World Without End, a song series about murders, murderers and victims.
Murry recalls that visit fondly. “Those were the first dates we played outside the country — Bob and I. It was so warm and so real. You got to understand that I was a kid and I remember thinking — ‘God, we’re going to be rock stars’,” he says. “Bob Frank is an old star like Townes Van Zandt, and because the reception was so wonderful, we got such a shock. People there really liked us. We were given a chance. People told us that the traditional song we played as an encore originally came from there. There’s such a community around music that we found in Kilkenny. That’s what exists in Mississippi, too, and doesn’t exist in any other place that I’ve been to.”
After Kilkenny, they performed in Stockholm. “I think we played to four people on a bill with Richmond Fontaine. Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine band leader) looked over at me and said, ‘do you get it now?’. He was saying, in a roundabout way, that there are some people that will give you a chance. Willy has a love of Irish culture and we spoke a lot about the love we both have for Irish art in general. I took Gaelic in college and, sometimes, I feel like I live in the wrong place.”
Words like ‘dark’, ‘brooding’, ‘alluring’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘emotional’ have all been used to describe The Graceless Age. But, primarily, it’s an honest record. Murry has been quoted as saying that he didn’t make a record to please people, he made it for himself. “I think the record has done well,” he says. “But my listeners don’t really know me. So I think their needs are projected and transferred onto ideas. I think they found meaning in the songs. Then again, it depends on the person, and some people get it, like the crowd in Belfast or the crowd at Whelan’s in Dublin during the last tour, or the crowd at the Borderline in London.”
For Murry, this record is a second chance. Perhaps a chance that could not have been envisaged in the darker days of that heroin overdose. Yet, without those experiences The Graceless Age might not exist. “You can call it arrogance or you can call it truth,” he says. “I can write about a lot of things that other people can’t.”
Murry is happy with the direction of his life. “My wife and I are together now. So that record, it saved my marriage — it saved my life, because it was a way for me to be honest with the world. I’m grateful that it’s being heard by enough people to feel like that sort of acceptance.
“There’s some sort of forgiveness in it. It’s me saying ‘I want to be forgiven and I am being forgiven. I was wrong, so really wrong’. So I’m honoured that it’s the thing that allows me to, maybe, make a career doing the thing that I was always told that I could never do.”
The critical acclaim for The Graceless Age, since its release here last year, and the positive previews from the music press in his native America, have caught Murry a little off-guard.
“Yeah, it’s taken me a while, but it’s just humbling,” he says. “I mean, there’s a five-star review coming up in Mojo magazine — I’m not dead yet and I don’t understand what it is, really. I want to make another record, but to hear someone say that they love this record validates something that was never validated before. No one ever told me I was good at writing songs. I’ve been told not to do this. So, thank you to everyone who loves the thing.”
* John Murry and his band will play Kyteler’s Inn on Saturday, May 4, and Cleere’s on Sunday, May 5. www.kilkennyroots.com