Following a week that saw the passing of one of rock music’s top songwriters in Tom Petty, it brings to mind how important words are to the songs we love. Not just a beat or a hummable melody, a good song becomes a great song when the words are powerful, touching a nerve or a heartstring, a memory of youth or someone special, articulating love, anger or opinion. With those words spliced into the above rhythms, that song will stay with you forever.
For a songwriter like James McMurtry, he forms his words into a story. From start to finish, he allows the characters to sit a spell and lament about their lot in life. Whether a fisherman or an angry citizen, the story spills out with oftentimes humor amidst the ordinary. Over the course of nine studio albums, McMurtry has been the conduit of the everyday soul.
McMurtry, the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, makes his home in Austin, Texas, where he has a weekly gig at the Continental Club when he is not out on the road. He gained attention with his first album, Too Long In The Wasteland, co-produced by none other than the king songwriter of America’s heartland, John Mellencamp, who heard the younger McMurtry while acting in and directing Falling From Grace. The album debuted in 1989 and he began his ascent to important singer-songwriter status. Although somewhat mistakenly looked upon as a political protest artist, McMurtry feels he is simply a writer telling stories whose characters have strong opinions. If he inserts too much of himself, then the song suffers for it.
A week after an incredible solo acoustic performance in Baton Rouge last month, where he performed notable songs from his catalog such as “No More Buffalo,” “Choctaw Bingo” and “Lights Of Cheyenne,” I spoke with McMurtry about his songwriting, the characters he sings through and who he feels has the right stuff as a singer/songwriter.
You played your regular gig at the Continental Club in Austin last night. How do you make your setlist when you’re playing the same venue every week?
Well, when I get a good set I generally stick with it, sometimes for years. We get a varying crowd here, we’ve got a lot of travelers, so when I get really sick of a song I drop it out and throw another one in. It mostly has to do with dynamic flow of the set, really. You don’t want too many back-to-back in the same key, the same groove. On Tuesday night I do a solo acoustic thing and then on Wednesday night I do a full band gig.
You certainly have a lot of songs to choose from but do you ever add any covers in your set too?
I used to cover a song or two. I had a cover of a Townes Van Zandt song called “Rex’s Blues” that we used to do. A long time ago I used to do “Wild Man From Borneo,” which was Kinky Friedman’s.
I understand that the way you write songs is a bit unusual, in that you write in bits and pieces, so to speak. Can you explain that process a little bit more to us?
If I hear a couple of lines in a melody in my head and it keeps me up at night, I keep thinking about it, then I’ll sit down and try to finish the song. But yeah, I build it piece by piece. Sometimes a song will get stalled and I’ll just start scrolling through all the rest of my lyrics and see if I have anything that fits the rhyme and meter scheme. Every now and then you get lucky, you find a piece of a song. I don’t usually start out with a forgone conclusion of where the song is going to go because it can change if you find a better rhyme or a line that sings better. You’re writing a song, you’re not writing sermons or poetry, so the number one thing is it has to sing, the chorus has to lift.
Have you had a song sit for years?
Oh yeah, there’s one on this last record [2015’s Complicated Game], “You Got To Me.” That was bits and pieces over twenty years.
What finally kicked that one in?
I don’t remember but I needed to make a record and it was one I just kept looking at. Then by contrast, there’s another one on there, “Ain’t Got A Place,” that took fifteen minutes from start to finish. That’s very unusual for me.
I’d flown in to New Orleans after a late show in Austin to check out some mixes for this last record and that way I’d be sitting in the same room with the record producer and engineer and we’d all be on the same page listening on the same machine. Otherwise, a lot of times these days, people just email the tracks back and forth and try to make decisions but they are all listening on different machines so it’s hard to be consistent. So I’d flown in there and of course the computer crashed so we didn’t get a lot of work done that day so I was tired and grumpy. I was living in a room over a bar so there was plenty of alcohol available.
Are you riled up about anything currently?
This week, it’s health care. It’s ridiculous. I’ve got pre-existing conditions and I was uninsured for ten years before Obamacare. When the insurers are against it, doctors are against it, the AARP is against it and most of America is against it, you know, they’re just doing this cause they promised they would. They need to just let it go.
Is that enough to inspire you to write some new songs?
No, no, because I never wrote a song as an act of will. I did write one protest song that got noticed but it was kind of an accident. I had finished it during the Bush administration, actually started it during Clinton. So when I put it out, I got a lot of flak for it because everybody thought it was an anti-Bush song and they didn’t like me picking on their poor little President. It’s interesting now how the right has embraced that song. I was messing around on Facebook one day and I put up that shot of Trump stumbling around, appearing to get lost next to a limousine, and I posted something like, “On his way to the G20 Summit, the President was distracted by something sparkly.” And boy I got a hatestorm on Facebook. One the things they kept saying was, “You wrote ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ and now you do this.” I was like, “Wait a minute, weren’t you guys really angry with me for writing that song in 2006 when I put it out?” (laughs). Maybe they were in grade school then and that was their fathers and uncles that were giving me all that vitriol.
Do you think people mistake you as sort of a political protest songwriter instead of being a storyteller whose characters have opinions?
Definitely but that song happened to get noticed, and you got to get noticed for something, and whatever breaks you through is going to be perceived what you are. So I’ve really only written about two straight-out protest songs. For a while there I was supposed to be the big protest writer. Maybe I’ll get back to it if I happen to write a good protest song. The problem with political songs is that it’s really easy to write a sermon because you are trying to inject your opinion into it. Steve Earle is real good at it and he can push his idea through. I got real lucky with “We Can’t Make It Here.”
You went to college in Arizona. What were you intending to be?
I wasn’t intending to be anything. I just went to college because everybody I knew did. My parents were both academics when I was a kid. My mother is an English professor and my dad taught Creative Writing at Rice for years and years and years. So the academic world, that’s what I knew to do. I majored in English but I didn’t get very far with it. I mostly went to Tucson cause I didn’t know anybody from there. I wanted to wander around in the desert and hunt those blue quail that they have out there so I did that.
When did you first feel the pull to write songs and what were you writing about?
I wrote verse after verse after verse and never finished a song until I was about twenty-five. I started writing verse when I was eighteen or so and I was influenced by Kristofferson and John Prine, people that wrote really tight verse. Kris was a Rhodes Scholar and his songs were just structured in such a way you could sing them or talk them with equal effect, cause every syllable falls right in the pocket.
You have characters in your songs. Is there one character in particular you relate to the most?
No, not really, and that’s another part of my process is when I hear those lines in my head, I think, who said that? And then I try to envision the character and I get this story from the character. It’s a means to getting the song written, really. I’m just influenced by the lines. What can I do with this?
On “Carlisle’s Haul” off your last album, the line, “Hanging on to a pot to piss in is just about the best a man can do,” is very true to today.
Yeah but there’s an example how I can get into cross-purposes of my own characters because I happen to believe we should regulate fisheries so we’ll still have them. But I’m not trying to pull my living out of a bay and I can’t break character in that song or it’ll ruin the song. So I had to stick with the point of view of the kid from the fishing town and how everybody wants the government off their back.
What do you think is the biggest mistake a songwriter can make?
Well, I guess just trying too hard to make your point rather than making a good song.
Have you ever done that?
Yeah, of course I’ve done that, but I don’t put those songs out generally. You listen to what you have and you pull out what don’t work; and you can tell real fast, especially when you sing it live and there’s a cringe factor in it, and you know something’s wrong with that song.
In Baton Rouge, you mentioned David Bromberg. What makes him a great songwriter in your opinion?
He’s a great performer. He has written some great songs and he’s got a good style, very understated, but he does a lot of covers in his work. One of the more consistent performers I have ever seen and I’ve seen him quite a bunch of times. Sometimes he was sick as a dog but he still delivered every time. I stopped by and saw him not too long ago. We were playing in Wilmington, Delaware, that’s where he lives, and he’s got that fiddle shop there. I actually stopped by the fiddle shop. He played guitar with me on my first tour for a little bit. I happened to run into him and at that time I was signed to Columbia and was a new artist and hadn’t yet screwed up in their eyes so they gave me plenty of tour support. And I wanted Bromberg to come play guitar and the check was written back then. And he came out with us for a couple of weeks.
When did you start playing guitar?
My mother taught me my first chords when I was about seven years old. I don’t remember what kind of guitar I had, some kind of cheap classical, and I just kept after it from then on. In those days, I was playing on a classical guitar then because it was strung with nylon and didn’t eat my fingers up so bad. Later on I got callused enough where I could hold down a steel string.
Who was someone who surprised you by telling you that you had influenced them?
I’m just starting to see that now, some of the younger guys coming up. I don’t know any of them by name but I meet them at shows sometimes. I guess it’s sort of like me and Kristofferson (laughs). Actually, Kristofferson was the first one that was ever identified to me as a songwriter. My step-dad turned me on to him when I was about nine. Up to that point, to me, there was Johnny Cash and everybody else; and after that, there was Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and everybody else.
You don’t appear to be all yee-ha-ha about things in your career but what was an early moment where you thought, I can’t believe I’m here?
I was one of the winners in 1986 of the New Folk contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival. That was a big deal for me. It kind of gave me enough visibility that I could get a gig in Austin as well as San Antonio. So that was a huge step. And one time, after my first record came out, there was a TNN show called American Music Shop, which for a house band had Mark O’Conner on fiddle and Jerry Douglas on steel, lap steel I guess, top flight Nashville guys, and I got on there with Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark. I remember we all came out and sang “Homegrown Tomatoes.” (laughs) That was a big deal for me.
I read where your son Curtis had written with Guy Clark
Yeah, he’s written with Guy. I actually dropped him off at Guy’s house one time cause I wanted to borrow his car.
What is Curtis up to right now?
Right now he is on the road opening for Hayes Carll. He’s up in the northeast right now.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Are you going back out on the road?
Yeah, I’m going out to Tucson, October 12th. I’ve got four shows and I think they’re package shows. There’s me and Steve Earle and Joan Baez and Patty Griffin. That’s the Jesuit organization that puts it together and for refugees relief, mostly Syrian. I think some of the money is earmarked for hurricane relief as well.
Did you get much of that up in Austin?
Austin was spared almost entirely. We had a few downed trees and that’s about it, three days of rain. East of here and south of here got it pretty bad.
Why do you think Austin is such a good fit for you?
It’s geographic, half the distance from each coast and it’s a big deal because that way we can tour, we can load a van and drive to the East Coast and work for three or four weeks, come back and take a week off and do the same thing on the West Coast or go up the middle. That way you can break your tours up short enough you can kind of keep your life together. If you live on either coast, you’ve got to stay out for about eight weeks cause it’s just not economical to be going out and back. You make a big long circle.
You don’t miss that?
Well, you don’t want to do that forever cause then you don’t have any home life that way. I like it while I do it, and we do it a lot. I mean, we’re gone at least half the year. Then when we’re home we usually have weekend work and the regular gigs during the week so we stay plenty busy.
Portrait by Mary Keating-Bruton; live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough