STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
For Digital First Media
Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter James McMurtry knows how to write a compelling narrative. It’s a skill that he attributes more from listening to the songs of Kris Kristofferson than from growing up with his father, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and screenwriter, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment).
“Larry never wrote verse,” McMurty said in his deadpan, tell-it-like-it-is manner. “He did break the mold in my family, though. He was the first one to read for pleasure, everyone before him read for information. We come from a long line of farmers, stockmen, and horse-breakers.”
McMurtry like other great American-songwriters of his generation tells the tales of the common man, weaving undertones of politics and social commentary into his lyrics; he is frequently lauded as one of the most literate songwriters in America.
He has been exercising his craft for over a quarter of a century and initially never considered making albums.
“I didn’t even think it was a possibility,” he said. “I was set to move to Nashville and wanted to try working as a staff writer—writing songs for other artists.”
A surprise phone call from Americana rocker John Mellencamp changed all that.
“I’d sent him a demo hoping he’d want to record one of my songs. I figured I’d have an easier time getting an apartment in Nashville if I had someone like Mellencamp record my song. He didn’t, but he wanted me to make an album that he would produce; he asked me if I could write some more. I wasn’t really ready, but the door opened for me and I had to take it.”
That work became his first critically lauded album, Too Long in the Wasteland (1989). Over the decades the singer has gathered fans across the country through regular touring and by writing songs that have become Americana staples. Songs such as, “Levelland,” “Choctaw Bingo,” and “We Can’t Make it Here,” have carved McMurtry his own foothold in a musical culture dominated by commercial radio.
He said that getting a song on a hit television show trailer is the modern-day equivalent of having a Top 40 hit, something that he has been unable to do. Touring is his bread and butter and these days he says he makes albums to keep the touring going, rather than touring to promote the albums.
“I have to have an album out so you guys will write about us when we come to town,” he said. “Radio play doesn’t cut it anymore. The only mailbox money is if you get a trailer in an HBO series. It’s a muscle game.”
His latest album, “Complicated Game,” relies heavily on acoustic instruments and in many ways is his most personal to date, analyzing the relationships of his characters throughout.
The album opens with the line “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun” on his song “Copper Canteen.” In the hands of an unskilled artist, that line might be a frightening segue into a country song, but in McMurtry’s, he leads the listener into an unexpected twist.
On the song “How’m I Gonna Find You Now?” a song he calls “meth-head rock,” McMurtry delivers the lines at rapid-fire pace, reminiscent of “Choctaw Blues.” It’s about the closest that this Texan comes to rapping and yet it works quite well.
“That one came pretty quick when I heard a rattle in my dashboard as I was driving to my hunting camp,” he said.
“South Dakota” weaves in the economic aspect of war without the singer getting on the political soapbox, telling the tale of a soldier who’s in the Army because he’s from a rural area where there isn’t any other work available to him.
“I drive around the country a lot and come into all these small towns with these ‘Welcome Home Banners’ for the troops,” he said. “There’s a lot of military in rural America.”
Author Stephen King is a fan of his work and has said McMurty “may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” King used McMurtry’s song, “Small Town (Talkin’ at the Texaco)” throughout the plot of his novel Under The Dome.
“Stephen did me a good turn” he said. “He has a classic rock radio station in Bangor, Maine. He got his programmer to start playing my music and it’s made Bangor my biggest market. When they started playing ‘We Can’t Make it Here,’ Maine had just lost 30,000 jobs to outsourcing and that song really rung the bell for all those Union guys up there.”
McMurtry’s son, Curtis, is a songwriter in his own right. His debut album, “Respectable Enemy” chronicles the narratives of complex characters, and is a great continuation of the McMurtry fiction-writing tradition.
James and Curtis will be performing together on this tour. While they’re definitely now a father-son act, the two songwriters do like to share a little stage time.
“We’re trying to work up a three-song encore. He’s bringing Diana Burgess with him on cello. It sounds really cool. I wish I could do the whole set with them, but I probably won’t get that far.”