Austin’s Favorite Singer/Songwriter Returns to San Diego

Monday, June 11, 2012 10:35

An Interview with James McMurtry

By Casey Pukl

McMurtry is known as one of the most poignant voices of the last two decades. His debut record, Too Long in the Wasteland, was produced by rock icon John Mellencamp, and since then, McMurtry has continued releasing poetic record after poetic record. While his best known song, “We Can’t Make It Here” has been cited numerous times as one of the best protest songs ever written, McMurtry is more than a political songwriter. I had the chance to catch up with him last week and find out just how he got his start in songwriting, what kind of influence his father (famed author Larry McMurtry) has had on his writing, and just why the shifts in the music business in the last decade have worked to his benefit.

CP: I was just listening to your “Live In New York” record and you are truly a songwriter’s songwriter. I’m excited to pick your brain a little bit. Tell me a little bit about how you got your start in songwriting.

JM: I started songwriting because I couldn’t make the football team and I wanted some reason for women to talk to me— and some of them did talk eventually.

CP: Did you get influenced by your father’s writing early on? 

JM: Luckily we have a similar eye for detail, and we saw a lot of the same details because we were in the same place. But he writes prose and I write verses. It’s a different muscle, really.

CP: Sure. I think it’s interesting to see that the pictures you paint in your songs remind me of visual things that I’ve seen in “Lonesome Dove.”

JM: We spent time in the same part of the country a lot.

CP: Who are some of your musical influences? Who kind of got you started?

JM: Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson were the first two. I was a big Cash fan when I was a little kid. Actually, the first concert I ever saw was Johnny Cash. It was a big package show with The Carter Family and Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers. I was about seven years old. A couple years later, my step-dad turned me onto Kris Kristofferson, and he was the first one that I ever identified as a songwriter. I hadn’t thought about where songs came from up to that point. So I was about nine or ten years old when Kris came to Virginia, and my dad and I were living in northern Virginia at the time, and my mother and step-dad were living in Richmond. I went down to Richmond for a weekend, and Kris was playing at a place called “The Mosque” and we got really good seats. We were sittin’ front and center about five rows back. That was the first time I ever smelled marijuana, which I didn’t care for so much, but what I noticed about Kris and his band is that they seemed to be having such a good time. That’s when he had Funky Donnie Fritts playing the piano and Stephen Bruton playing guitar, and they were just havin’ a blast. I saw those guys and I thought that’s what I want to be. I actually got to play with Bruton some on the road in the late ’80s. [Laughs] That was an experience!

CP: Yeah, that must have been kind of crazy! You mentioned that Kristofferson was the first person you recognized as a songwriter. Did you always see yourself as a performer songwriter or as a songwriter— more on the back end of it?

JM: Performer songwriter, definitely.

CP: Can you tell me a little about your writing process?

JM: I get a couple lines and a melody, and if it’s cool enough to keep me up at night, then I’ll actually finish the song. If I can get it to the point where I have a verse and chorus structure, then I have pretty good odds at finishing it. Otherwise I get too lazy.

CP: [Laughs] You gotta know it’s good to hang onto it.

JM: Yeah well I don’t throw anything away; I put it back in the scrap pile if I can’t deal with it right now. Otherwise I’d write part of a song and not really connect with it. I’m thinkin’, that’s pretty cool lyrics but I don’t know what that is, and then ten or fifteen years later you might understand it. Or you might just accidently come up with more lines that go to it. The thing about songs is that they don’t absolutely have to make sense. It’s okay if they do, but you can write a perfectly good song that doesn’t.

CP: In reading your bio and articles about you, people paint you as a political songwriter. But when I really started listening, it doesn’t really seem that way to me at all.

JM: Well it’s just that “Can’t Make It Here” kind of turned the corner for me. A lot of people connected with that, and it’s the closest thing I had to a hit in probably my whole career. The nature of the hit is that the listener hears his or herself in the song. It just so happened that at that time a lot of people were feelin’ that way. So that was the first song that a lot of people heard me through. And you tend to identify an artist by the work that you first hear or see, so I did get tagged as a political writer for a while. That’s okay.

CP: Do you still enjoy writing political songs here and there?

JM: Ehh, I’ve always shied away from it because the problem with political songs or any song where you’re trying to make a point, is it could very easily turn into a sermon rather than a song. And that’s gonna turn everybody off. I got lucky that time; I got a song. But the downside of being tagged as a political songwriter is that the next record I put out, “Just Us Kids,” I had some political songs on there and they ran those as singles. In my view that wasn’t a good choice because there was one called “Cheney’s Toy” that I got in a little bit of trouble for because people were misinterpreting it. There’s a line in there about the unknown soldier and a lot of people thought I was saying that the soldiers were Cheney’s toy, which I was not; I was saying that George Bush was Cheney’s toy. But more than being misinterpreted, that song was just more of a rant from my point of view. There was nothing in there that the listener was going to identify with on the scale that they did with “Can’t Make It Here.” It could never have been as popular. But by then I was still seen as a political writer so that’s what they went with.

CP: You’ve been in this industry since ’89. Have you found yourself changing the way you do business in the course of at least the last ten years with the whole model changing?

JM: No, it hasn’t changed my life that much cause I was already in the van. I never had a tour bus. It worked out to the advantage of people like me who learned how to tour cheap. People who think they need a tour bus, they’re the ones who are sittin’ in the hurt right now.

CP: Do you find yourself having to tour more now and record less? 

JM: Not really. I’ve never been that prolific. It’s gotten to the point where now I can tour whether or not I have a record out, which is a good thing.  I used to tour whenever I had a record out because I had to get press. Now, I haven’t played in San Diego in a long, long time. I’ve played in San Diego proper about three times. I’ve played at Bacchanal when it was open. It became Sound FX at some point. And then after that we didn’t get any offers down there. We’d go to The Belly Up.  So I’m curious to see what will happen there. But for the most part we’ve been drawing pretty good despite not having a new record.

CP: That’s always a good thing. Keep your draw happening.

JM: Well people need their entertainment regardless of the economy. You might have to adjust your price a little bit sometimes.

CP: There’s always a market for music. Where’s your home base?

JM: I live in Austin.

CP: I love Austin— it’s really got  a great live music scene.

JM: Steve Earle, years ago, said that he moved to Austin but he couldn’t get anything done because the girls were too pretty and the dope was too cheap.

CP: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s a party city over there.

JM: Yeah, and it’s got a lazy southwestern vibe— that’s a good thing. Most say it’s a great place to leave your stuff. It will be there when you get back. It’s a good place to tour out of because it’s almost equidistant between the coasts, so you can do either coast in about three and a half to four weeks and do a pretty good job. Then you can get back home, take a week or two off in the Midwest or wherever.

CP: It’s pretty handy to pick a good geographical location for all that. What are you most looking forward to about coming out to Anthology?

JM: Since you asked right this minute, I’m looking forward to getting out of this heat!

CP: Oh no! Is it super hot?

JM: It’s the weirdest combination of muggy and hot. It’s not blistering hot yet and it will be. But its kind of quasi-gulf coast humidity. Not quite that humid but it’s just enough to be uncomfortable.

CP: Well we definitely have some awesome weather right now!

JM: I’m looking forward to that for sure!

Special thanks to James for his time! Be sure to come on out and enjoy this singer/songwriter’s rocking Texas country show this Thursday! In the mean time, give him a listen on Spotify. We’ve also still got a few anniversary deals left for this show, so enter promo code “5YEARS” with your purchase of First Floor Dining seats, and get $10 off!

James McMurtry on Spotify

WHAT: James McMurtry w. Jonny Burke
WHEN: Thursday, June 14, 7:00pm
TICKETS: $10-$22 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile