James McMurtry is going on tour again and will make a welcome stop at Tucson’s Club Congress on Jul 28 for his “State of the Union” tour. McMurtry made Tucson his home during his college years. He has performed many times at Tucson’s Club Congress.
McMurtry is the son of famed American novelist, screenwriter, essayist and bookseller, Larry McMurtry. His accomplished works include the Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning Lonesome Dove. James has followed in his father’s footsteps in writing his epic songs. His thought-provoking and eloquent songs reflect the American condition of the times, past and present.
McMurty has recently signed with New West Records out of Nashville. McMurtry’s last studio album release was Complicated Game in 2015 and fans are anxiously anticipating the next road trip by the harbinger of American truth. Glide was able to catch McMurtry as he is getting ready to tour and record his next album. Here’s what we learned.
So, did I catch you at home in Austin, Texas?
James McMurtry: No, actually now I live in Lockhart, Texas. It’s 30 miles south of Austin. The landlord I was renting from for 18 years died and the heirs wanted to sell it. I can’t afford to buy a half million-dollar teardown. The ground under it was worth a lot of money but the building on it was turning to dirt. So anyway Lockhart, Texas is a pretty nice little town. It’s growing slower that most of the outlying villages because its not on the way to anywhere. It’s in the middle of a flat patch of farmland. It’s not picturesque like the Austin landscape. People are moving here but not as fast as the hill country or anything along the river. We are right between the rivers.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Virginia. I was born in Fort Worth and I guess my earliest memories are in Houston but we left Houston when I was seven years old. I did most of my so-called growing up in Loudoun County, Virginia.
What brought you back to Austin?
In a roundabout way, my dad owned a little ranch house out in Archer County, Texas. It kind of washed up that year after I finally dropped out of The University of Arizona. I gave up on being a student. That little house needed paint so I stayed all fall scraping that house down and painting. A friend of mine called from San Antonio. He was renovating a bar. I moved down there. The north Texas winter can be pretty vicious back then.
So, I went to San Antonio and the day I got to San Antonio, it snowed something like 13 inches. It shut the whole town down. It would be something like having 13 inches of snow in Tucson. You never see that kind of snow down there. I’ve seen snow on those saguaros before but nothing like that. This was insane. Looking out the plate glass window of this bar I was at and I remember thinking, ‘This is never going to stop.’
Anyway, I was down there for four or five years. I wound up in Austin because I had a record deal. My fiancée at the time was at the University of Texas grad school. It seemed like the place to go. I’ve been there for thirty years. My girlfriend and I moved down here in February. It’s an easy commute to Austin because there is a brand new toll road that goes right through here that you can get to town in a half hour. If you are not in a hurry, you can just take the old highway.
I remember that you spent some time in Tucson and you went to the University of Arizona.
Yeah, I did some of my first gigs there. My first paying gig was in Benson. It was a place called the Riverside Lounge. It was located right next to the Elks Club and the Elks Club would let the bar use their dance floor. There was an old gal, fiddler, in St. David who put together a band and I went out there and tried to play guitar with them. God knows what we sounded like. She was a pretty good fiddler.
Well, you have to start somewhere. How old were you when you started playing guitar and doing music?
My mother taught me my first chords when I was seven years old. She played guitar, but she was actually an English professor. She did play.
My dad was always a writer and still is. But when we were living in Virginia in those days, he was still teaching creative writing. He got into screenwriting cause he wrote The Last Picture Show. None of his books sold much but he got a certain amount of fame with the ones that were made into movies. He got a foothold in screenwriting after co-scripting The Last Picture Show with Peter Bogdanovich and that gave him a career because he was real good at taking a book the first step before making it a movie and start the adaptation. He didn’t know enough about film to take it all the way to production so he invariably got fired. The first draft, he made 40 grand and back then it was a lot of money. He did alright.
Also he had a rare bookstore in Washington DC which they operated for 30 years. He moved most of it to Texas and it’s all back in his home town now because the real estate in major cities got too high. He actually had a branch in Tucson at one time. It was called ‘Booked Up.’ There was a little while that he started branching out. He had a store in Houston, Dallas, and the one in Tucson. Larry would buy a whole library when some old book collector died. He would just buy everything. Then he would split the library up into whatever he thought would sell in a given location. All the picture car books would go to Houston. All the textile books would go to Dallas. I don’t know what went to Tucson. All of the really good stuff went to the DC store.
It all changed. DC ceased to be a really good book town. It was a great book town in the 70s and early 80s. It went south for some reason. All he has left now is two buildings in his hometown in Archer City. That is where The Last Picture Show was filmed. Of course in the late 80s he wrote Lonesome Dove and that turned everything around for him.
You started learning guitar chords at the age of seven. How did things progress for you from there?
I stole guitar licks from anybody whose style that I liked. I didn’t start writing songs till I was about 18. I listened to a lot of Kris Kristofferson and John Prine and people like that who wrote a real tight structured verse. I didn’t sing all that well. If you are in the Kristofferson mode you want to write stuff that can be talked equally effectively as well as sung. I did learn to sing eventually.
Kristofferson and Bob Dylan weren’t known to be great singers either.
No. Dylan can sing his ass off. He sings in a weird style and that’s why people think he can’t sing. Get out the Desire record. It came out in about 74 or 76. The hit off of that was “Hurricane,” but there is a song on there called “One More Cup of Coffee.” It’s just amazing. He’s hitting these Middle Eastern intervals and hitting them spot on and that was analog tape back then. They didn’t have computers to Auto-tune your voice. He’s singing that. I don’t know if he can sing now. I haven’t heard him sing live recently. He’s been touring constantly for the last 40 years. He never comes off the road. I think Emmylou Harris did the background vocals on that.
You mentioned that you didn’t start writing songs until you were 18. Was that when you were in college?
I was about to go to college. I don’t know. I really started bearing down on it when I got to San Antonio because I was doing a lot of these outdoor beer garden gigs. You know those four-hour afternoon happy hour gigs. It was mostly covers and that was what they wanted. If you interviewed any of those food and beverage guys you’d have to know a couple of Jimmy Buffett songs just to get the gig. I got tired of just doing cover songs. That was what everybody was doing. I started working in a couple of original songs into the set. You could get away with that and make it a little more unique. In 1986, I worked the Kerrville Folk Fest, 70 miles west of San Antonio. I heard that Guy Clark was out there doing a song seminar. I raced out there and I just caught the last song of it. I did get to talk to Guy and he was very gracious. The next year I entered the songwriting contest there. They had six winners and I was in the winners group. I got to play the winner’s concert that year.
There, I met Fred Koller a songwriter from Nashville. He was very successful in the late 80s. I used to go up to Nashville and write with him. We wrote things that sounded like songs that are what you get when you co-write. It was a very good experience because he taught me a little bit about the business. He spent his days going to demo sessions pitching his songs to top artists. He and Pat Alger had a string of hits there with Kathy Mattea. Ironically, it enabled him to quit it all and go back into the rare book business. He now owns Rhino Books which is now one of the last major rare bookstores in a major city. He has two locations in Nashville. He’s going great guns with it. I wish my dad could get over there. He can’t travel very well right now. I’d like to take him to Nashville just to show him that shop.
It was about 1988 when I worked on the production of Lonesome Dove as a non-descript background cowboy. Actually I had two lines in it. I was the kid who didn’t go into the whorehouse. Instead, I went back downstairs. We wrapped on that. I didn’t know what to do. I had a demo tape that I was going to take to Nashville. My dad had written a script for John Mellencamp. Mellencamp had decided he wanted to make a movie. He hired Larry and he had a story laid out in his head. Larry scripted it. It was a great story. It was pretty cool. They eventually made that movie. There was great acting in it. Claude Akins was brilliant in it as a mean old father figure and just nailed it. The man can really act. I wish more people could see that movie just to see his performance.
I was hanging out in Kerrville and Kinky Freidman happened to be in this Mexican restaurant where I was eating. I had met him back in the 70s because Larry was friends with Maureen Orth. She was the music writer for Newsweek at the time. She did the John Denver cover and the Bruce Springsteen cover. The Springsteen was on the cover of Newsweek and Time in the same week and that was a first for a rock performer. Way back in the 70s, she knew Kinky Friedman and she introduced us to him, “Mr. Friedman, this is James McMurtry.” Friedman said, “Oh, yes. James. Can you tune a guitar?” I responded, ‘Yeah.’ So I went out to his place. He had just gotten off a plane and he had his own ovation guitar. He striked the strings on it and he wanted it twisted back up real fast. He was on the phone and I started picking around. He heard me and invited me to join him on tour, “You can come and play too. Come to New York, DC, and Boston and do a sideman thing. I agreed to do it even though he didn’t provide transportation. I met him up there.
I had given a demo to Larry because they were supposed to have a meeting for the script rewrite. I gave the cassette tape to give to Mr. Mellencamp hoping he would want to cut one of the songs on the cassette and then, when I got to Nashville, somebody would actually rent me an apartment. When you get to Nashville, the first thing anybody asks you is ‘what do you do?’ If I just say I’m a songwriter. Landlords usually respond with ‘No, what do you do for money?’ You’ve got to have a regular job. If you have a Mellencamp cut, they understand what that is and they will approve it. I thought, ‘Maybe this will get me ahead of the game and I won’t have to be a country songwriter.’ John didn’t want to cut my songs, but he was interested in producing a record.
When I got to DC, my dad still had a bookstore there. He had several apartments over the store. I happened to be sleeping in the one that had the answering machine. I had given that number to some of my friends to call, So, I hit play and started going through the messages. There was one on there from Mellencamp. He said, ‘Larry, have your son call me.’ I called him the next day. He said, “I like your songs. Do you have enough songs for a record?” I said ‘no.’ He responded, “Can you write enough by February?” It might have been August at that point. I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ I had no idea if I could actually do it. It looked like the door was open and it might not ever open again. ‘Yes sir, I can do it!’ I actually flew out to Indiana and talked to him for a little bit. I had this gap in time so it could actually work in February. So I went back to Texas and got on it. That’s what I did. That became the Too Long in the Wasteland record. He got me a deal with Columbia Records that lasted three records.
What inspires your songwriting?
Fear of not having a job. I’ve been writing a bunch lately because I’ve got to make a record in July. Sometimes, I have to do it that way. I’ve booked studio time and have a real demo.
That’s actually how it got started when I first met Mellencamp. I had six songs that I could play, worked into my cover set. I had to finish them and write at least six more in three or four months. I had never had that pressure. I would have written half of my songs if it hadn’t become my job.
It’s been awhile since your last record, Complicated Games. I’m sure your fans are anxious for your next release.
Well, a couple of them are pretty good. I just write and throw a couple of them at the wall and I see what sticks.
You are still writing songs for the new album. Do you have any idea of the album’s title?
I do, but I don’t want to let it out right now.
What do you think constitutes a good song?
That you can sing it without cringing. That it is at least okay.
One of the new songs is “State of the Union” that I think you wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a very interesting song. What was your motivation for that song? Was it a two-year mark after Trump’s inauguration?
No, it’s just the way the country is divided. Whole families are divided. It has more to do with which channel you listen to more than Trump. All Trump has done is capitalize on the situation. It’s been going on for years. I mostly blame cable news and the splintering of our information sources. Viet Nam didn’t end because the kids were marching in the street. It ended because Walter Cronkite got sick of it and everybody right, left, and center watched Walter. Now, we don’t have a central voice because everybody can go to whichever channel that strokes their ego and makes them feel part of a team and part of something in a tribe or whatever. Everybody wants to feel a part of something. They are in a group thing. They don’t want to think individually. It’s easy to make money off of that. It’s not just American, it’s human. It’s always been like that. There are studies now going on where the Irish kids in Belfast are sorry that they missed the troubles in the past because they don’t have anything to identify with. It’s like an Irish Catholic wakes up and doesn’t hate Protestants and he doesn’t even know who he is. It’s hard-wired caveman stuff. We have to learn how to think our way around that. Basically, our minds will have to evolve faster than their simian brains are able to evolve on a cellular level. That hard wiring is going to stay in there unless we learn to short-circuit it in some way or we are just going to perish.
I’m excited that you will be in Tucson on July 28 at Club Congress.
It’s a great room. I always love playing there.