James McMurtry Biography
Early in his career, Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry was best known as the son of Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry and a protege of John Mellencamp. He was pegged as the poet laureate of heartland rock, a sardonic observer of Midwestern life who could paint vivid character sketches with just a few well-phrased lyrics and a chugging, rootsy songwriting style.
Since those early days, however, McMurtry has forged an identity entirely his own. He remains, arguably, rural America's best songwriter and social critic. His lyrical range has become more versatile, ranging from the bitter social commentary of songs like "Out Here in the Middle" to the elliptical imagery of "St. Mary of the Woods," the title track on his last studio album. His music, meanwhile, has become just as distinctive as his lyrics, a thick Texas stew of rock, country, folk and roadhouse boogie framed by McMurtry's own chiming, evocative guitar work.
Today, McMurtry lives in Austin, Texas, home of the South by Southwest Music Festival. He tours regularly but tends to avoid the spotlight. His latest release, Live in Aught Three, is McMurtry's first live album, showcasing the singer-songwriter's more rocking side. He also recently made a controversial new song, "We Can't Make It Here," available as a free MP3 on his website, jamesmcmurtry.com.
ARTISTdirect's Andy Hermann spoke to James McMurtry at home and asked him about his experiences in the music business, guitar playing vs. songwriting, and his newfound role as a writer of Dylanesque protest songs. Here's what James had to say.
AD: South by Southwest just blew through town. Did you play any showcases?
JM: No, I don’t do showcases because they don’t pay any money. I play the non-sanctioned gigs. Another thing about showcases is you can’t play anywhere else around town, I think, 30 days before and after. That’s ridiculous.
Do you go to check out a lot of bands while South by Southwest is in town, or do you tend to hide from it while it’s happening?
I pretty much hide from it because it’s just so hard to park....It used to be kind of cool because it was mostly unsigned bands trying to get noticed and then the labels kind of took it over. It became a showcase for whatever they have. There’s some good music sometimes.
You might be interested to know that the first time I heard you play, the first time I heard of James McMurtry, was when I used to be a student in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Oh, you were at that gig?
Was it that gig? This was way back in 1992.
Yeah, that's the only time I played at Amherst and it was scary.
Why was it scary?
It seemed like people were taking notes or something. It was like a biology class and I was the beast of the week or something and they brought me in for people to study.
There were probably a bunch of English students there who had to write papers on Larry McMurtry's son or something like that.
Yeah, I remember that very clearly because our reverb setting got lost. I guess there was an opening act of some sort and the house engineer jacked with our reverb and we never could get it back. I wouldn't have noticed but I looked over at my road manager and he looked so depressed and I said, "Danny, what's the matter?" "Our reverb is all f*cked up."
Do you ever still play solo acoustic shows like that one?
You just don't like doing them?
Yeah, I prefer to have harmonies for one thing. It makes the chorus lift a lot more. And I just prefer to make more racket.
What ever happened to the fedora? That was kind of your signature for awhile.
I still wear that in the winter sometimes. It gets too hot in the summer.
Yeah, I guess in Texas you can’t be walking around in a fedora in July, huh?
Yeah. I quit doing the straw hats in the summer because they don’t shade well enough. So I went to canvas camo hats that you can buy at Wal-Mart or Academy. I actually wear camo fedoras quite often.
They actually make camo fedoras?
I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about where you grew up. I was surprised to find out that you grew up more in Virginia than in Texas, is that right?
Yeah, we moved up there in 1969. Stayed there for ten years.
At what point did you wind up back in Texas again?
After the last time I dropped out of college in 1984.
And that was at the University of Arizona?
Why did you decide to drop out?
I was not interested anymore in academia.
What were you studying while you were there?
I was majoring in English but I was going just because that’s what you did at that age. I didn’t know very many people that didn’t go to school. I was kind of plodding along and didn’t really have any direction. After awhile, I didn’t really see the point in it.
What did you do after you dropped out? You moved back to Texas, right?
Yeah, I came back for a little while and then I went off and went up to Alaska for the summer.
What did you do up there?
I played background music at a little roadhouse down in Talkeetna, which is where all the climbing expeditions to Mt. McKinley flew out of.
So you were a pretty good guitar player by this point?
Yeah, I was a pretty decent bluegrass flat-picker. That’s mostly what I had done then. I kind of lost that skill.
Lost the flat-picking skill?
Yeah, the bluegrass thing. I kind of picked it up a little bit in Virginia and then there was a lot of people in Arizona that were into that. I never really had the speed. I can’t think fast enough to do that.
Do you still listen to any bluegrass now?
No, very little.
What kind of music do you listen to these days?
I’m a big fan of Sonny Landreth I just listen to anybody good, you know? And in no particular genre. The last new music I heard that caught my ear was that guy, Clarence Greenwood. He’s got that band called Citizen Cope. It’s cool stuff. It’s sort of hip-hop/reggae influenced, but it’s neither. It's its own thing.
You've been playing the guitar since you were about seven, is that right?
And you're mom taught you how to play?
She taught me chords, yeah, when I first started.
And then after that did you ever have any formal lessons or did you just teach yourself?
I just taught myself and stole what I could.
When you first picked it up and started playing, did you think right away, "this is it, this is what I want to do?"
I already thought that. I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I was a little kid.
How old were you when you first started having some success and got signed to Columbia?
I guess I was 25 or 26 when I finally started writing songs. I'd been gigging a little bit, playing these solo beer garden type things. I finally got up the nerve to play my own songs in front of people and that's really when it started to take off.
So it was more just a question of being confident enough in your own songs? That was the big obstacle?
Yeah. There was a songwriter contest down here at the Kerrville Folk Festival that I entered. I guess it was '87. They have six winners and I was one of the six that year. So that gave me a pretty good ego boost.
So when all the success started to come, was it a big surprise?
I was surprised to find out that it wasn't success. It was really the beginning. You think you've made it, but you haven't.
It's actually just ends up being more work.
Yeah. But it is the kind of work you want to do. So it's okay.
How did your connection with John Mellencamp come about?
John hired my dad to write a screenplay for him.
And then he first heard your music while he was working on that film with your dad?
Yeah, I was trying to pitch songs. I wasn't trying to get a record deal myself. I was just trying to get John some songs on the off chance he might cut them. I was operating in the realm of what I knew. And I knew people who went to Nashville and became staff writers. And so I figured I could do that. So I sent John the tape hoping he would cut one of those songs and then by the time I got to Nashville I could say "well, I've already got a John Mellencamp cut, would you please rent me the apartment?"
Right. Did John Mellencamp ever cover any of your songs?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
It was actually a pretty ridiculous notion of me to want to go to Nashville because I never would have made it there. I didn't know that then.
Right. I wouldn't think your material would go over real well with Nashville.
Well, at the time I was trying to write stuff that might have worked. But what interested me about rural America was the reality of it and Nashville doesn't want the reality of it.
Speaking of which, I wanted to ask you about some of your more recent stuff. The new song, "We Can't Make it Here," and some of the songs on the most recent studio album, Saint Mary of the Woods. It seems to me that your criticism of what's happening in the heartland, if you want to call it that, is getting a lot sharper and a lot more specific. Would you say that's right?
Yeah. I'm writing kind of what I see. One of those songs, "Lobotown," when we play that I sometimes introduce it as country music because it's rural subject matter. I call it country music for the Kiss fan.
I was gonna say...that's probably the hardest rocking song you've ever recorded.
Yeah. But you know, all the country people I knew growing up were listening to Ted Nugent or Kiss or AC/DC. So that's for them.
So do the songs on Saint Mary of the Woods reflect a harsher reality since we've entered the era of George W?
That record [was written] before George W. There was already a pretty harsh reality. I have cousins that were strung out on meth out in the country. You don't hear that out of Nashville. You don't hear about the meth labs in the trailers. I don't know what it is about hillbillies -- they just love to go off into the woods and make something illegal. And moonshine has a limited market in the east.
Do you want to talk a little bit about "We Can't Make it Here" and what inspired you to write that song?
That's really the first overtly politically inspired song that I ever tried to write and I did it specifically for the election. I tried to get it out as soon as I could, because Steve Earle busted his ass to get that record [The Revolution Starts Now] out before the election. I thought if he could get a whole record out, I could get one song. [But] it's not even on a record. It's just a free download. It'll be on the next record.
When did the download become available?
About a week before Election Day.
Did you get any immediate response to it when you first put it out?
Yeah, I got some nasty emails right off the bat.
Yeah, if you look at my webpage, for awhile there was a link you could click on where you could respond to the song. We started printing them. The good and the bad. A lot of people really liked it, so it spoke to them. Then a lot of others were offended by it.
Was it surprising to you once you started writing more overtly political lyrics to find out that your fans covered the political spectrum like that?
Not really. I was a little bit surprised at just how radically it affected people. Because the ones who were offended were really offended.
Well, it does seem like people's politics are more divisive now then they've ever been, in my lifetime anyway.
I think it's by design, too. I think the powers that be really court that divisive aspect. I recently cut up my NRA card and mailed it back to them, which I'm sure didn't scare them any. I like their magazine. They sent me the American Rifleman. But this one issue I got there was a sticker on it telling me to vote for all these Republican candidates, and I looked at the sticker and these are local people they want me to vote for. And I've heard these people talk, so I know they're morons and there is no way in hell. And it finally clicked that the organization is no longer about gun rights. All it is now is about scaring gun owners into voting Republican. That's it. And it wasn't always that way, but it is now. I got tired of the rhetoric and I just don't want to give those people any money. I'm not going to pay any more membership dues because it's going straight to George and his buddies. I was an NRA Democrat. Now I'm just a Democrat. And hell, I still get the magazine. I don't know when my membership runs out. I forgot to check the expiration date.
Well, dire straights of our great nation aside, are you pretty happy with where you're at personally right now?
Pretty happy. I want to make more money. That's the same thing everybody wants.
You were on Columbia for awhile and then you went to Sugar Hill. And you're now at Compadre Records?
What happened with the folks at Sugar Hill?
We completed a three record deal and they didn't want to do any more.
And neither did I.
Any particular reason why?
Well, I wasn't selling enough records to suit them and they weren't promoting records well enough to suit me.
Was that the same problem that led you to leave Columbia, as well?
Oh, I was dropped by Columbia. I had a five record deal with them and they dropped me.
Was it again, because of a lack of sales?
Oh yeah. That's the number one reason why you get dropped.
Well, it sounds in a way like you're better off with a smaller label.
Not really. A big label on a bad day is better than a little label on a good day in terms of promotions. It's just the problem with the big labels, at least the time I was on Columbia, is you get too far in debt, too fast. Especially at that time. I was signed right when rap was really starting to take off. If I had been signed a little bit later I might have been smarter and the industry as a whole might have been smarter. What rap taught them is that you don't have to spend a million dollars to make a hit record. But by the time I left [Columbia], I was $630,000 in the red.
Yeah, because we made these records with a lot of Mellencamp's players, which were high dollar players, and his studio, which is a high dollar studio, and with him as an executive producer, which adds a little more to the tab. You add that to promotion and any other recoupable expense and you can run up your debt pretty fast. My debt on three records was relatively low for that era. I mean, I knew people who ran up nearly that much on one record. Joe Ely ran up a half million dollars on tour support alone at MCA. That was just how it was done in those days. But eventually some accountant looks at the books and says, “hey, this isn't gonna happen.”
You mentioned “We Can’t Make It Here” is eventually going to wind up on an album. Are you in the process of working on another studio album?
Yeah, I’m waiting for the engineer that owns the studio to become a father. I can’t really book time over there right now because we’d go right in there and then if his wife starts to deliver we’d have to shut down. We’re going to go ahead and go on the road and finish it up when we get back. We got two songs in the can, including “We Can’t Make It Here.”
Is this album going to be recorded all with the Heartless Bastards?
Cool. They did a lot of stuff on Saint Mary of the Woods too, is that right?
Yeah, same rhythm section.
But prior to that, you kind of had a rotating cast of musicians on each album.
Yeah, well Ronnie Johnson’s been playing bass for me for ten years now. All through the Sugarhill stuff. We had several drummers on those records. Darren [Hess] actually played one song on Walk Between the Raindrops. That was when he joined.
If you had to choose between writing songs and playing the guitar, which one would you choose?
I don't know, because I do one so I can do the other.
The reason I ask is because you're so well known as a songwriter, but I often get the sense, from watching you play, that you love playing guitar as much, if not more, than writing songs.
Yeah, I do. But it's interesting. The guitar I struggled with for a long time. Since I put so much time in it, it can sound pretty good. One of my favorite literary quotes is that Yeats quote: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst strive with passionate intensity." I think with songwriting I could be among the best, but I do lack all conviction. I am very lazy with songwriting. With guitar playing I come from the other side. I come from among the worst and I work real hard at it, so I can fake it to where I might sound like [the best]. That's the dicotomy.
When you say you're lazy about your songwriting, do you mean that you don't write as much material as you feel like you could?
Yeah, I don't work real hard at finishing songs until it's time to make the record. I collect the scraps. I collect some pretty good scraps. But I don't work at it enough to really make it smooth.
Do you think of your songs as being, in any way, literary? Because they're always described that way.
No, I don't, because they have to have a melody or they don't work for me. They have to be musical.
But I guess I mean "literary" in the sense that, more so than virtually any other songwriter that I can think of, your songs often have the feel of short stories, or character sketches.
You know, Steve Earle said that "songs are literature you can digest while driving." So I guess there are a lot of ways of looking at it. I never really looked at my songs as being literary.
But "literature you can digest while driving?" You'll take that?