Editor’s note: James McMurtry will headline a seated show at the Cargo Concert Hall in Reno on Sunday, July 8, along with bandmates Darren Hess (drums), Tim Holt (guitar) and Cornbread (bass). Advance tickets for the seated show are $3o.
James McMurtry’s songs resonate with people of all walks of life because listeners identify with the characters and their stories.
That’s the commonly held belief, anyway. McMurtry refutes the notion when he describes his fan base.
“I think the parents play this stuff for their kids and the kids grow up and don’t hate it when they grow up and they come back and they bring their kids,” he said. “That’s been my experience, anyway. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Oh my dad turned me on to you. He’s in prison. Could you say hi to him?’ That kind of stuff.”
When he speaks, McMurtry’s tone and inflection never change, whether it’s an analytical observation, description or witticism. His deadpan delivery can be intimidating because from his songs you know the man is brilliant as well as fearless. But after absorbing his words, you are soaked in their humor.
There is something about Texas that produces gifted musical Mark Twains, such as McMurtry, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett.
Such accolades just get you some gruff humility.
“I wrote most of this last record on an iPhone 3,” McMurtry said. “Ever since I broke that phone I haven’t been able to write so well.”
Inspiration for a song comes from anywhere, even a dashboard, which occurred when McMurtry wrote “How’m I Gonna Find You Now.” He said he was on his way from a liquor store to a hunting camp.
“I’ve got a cup of black coffee so I don’t get lazy.
I’ve got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy.
And if I hit it with my fist it’ll quit for a little while.
Gonna have to stop and take a piss in another mile.
Headed into town gonna meet you at the mercantile
Take you to the Sonic, get you grinning like a crocodile.”
“I start with a couple of lines and a melody and then I try to think of a character who might have said those lines,” he said. “If it’s cool enough to keep me up at night I can work backwards from a character of a story and get some kind of verse-chorus structure going and after that I just kind of build it.
“I don’t get the story first. I get the story from the line. You don’t want to impose a story on a song because it might not fit the meter of the rhyme scheme. And you’ll have a better song if it does. If you can sing it better, you’ll have a better song. A lot of times trying to make it sing better will change its whole meaning and it can be dangerous because it’s sung in my voice so everybody thinks it’s my opinion which is often is not. Quite often my characters don’t necessarily agree with me.”
Most people don’t understand nuance and they never did, he said.
Perhaps McMurtry’s best known song was “We Can’t Make It Here,” which lambasted politicians, President George W. Bush in particular.
“You have to leave a certain amount of interpretation up to the listener otherwise nobody’s going to want to hear it,” he said, before contradicting an earlier point. “The nature of a popular song is that the listener hears his or herself in it.”
“I got real lucky with ‘We Can’t Make It Here.’ It allowed me to get my point across without turning into a sermon. I did write it as an expression of powerlessness. … That was right before the 2004 election when Bush’s numbers were soaring and so many people had their whole identity wrapped up in that guy. They took it real personal. They spun that song at morning drive time and I had nasty emails on my website before I even got home. The irony was they took it as an anti-Bush song but what the protagonist really complains about is outsourcing, which really took wing under Bill Clinton.
“So the next record I put out “Cheney’s Toy,” which was more of a rant. But, by then, I was supposed to be the political songwriter. That song didn’t have a ghost of a chance as being as popular because there is no voice in there that you can hear as yourself. This is McMurtry mouthing off. It was kind of fun, it was kind of a cool song but it got misinterpreted because a lot of people thought I was saying the soldiers were Cheney’s Toy and that’s not what I was saying at all. I was saying Cheney was the puppet master and Bush was the puppet. I may have wandered off into nonsense here. You better take the reins back.”