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James McMurtry and the art of the American song

[Creative Loafing]

By Alec Wooden

Stories — the art of telling them, anyway — have never been lost on James McMurtry. The son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMutry, the Fort-Worth born and Virginia-raised James picked up the art at a young age, trading in his father’s medium (the pen) for his own (a guitar, which he first owned at age seven). Turns out, it stuck. In 11 studio albums since his 1989 debut, McMurtry has become a staple in his native of Austin (and far beyond), acclaimed in his own right for his gritty lyrical style, airtight songwriting, and honest portrayals of American life in line with the finest traditions of the strong folk-rock scenes from which he’s risen. With fresh re-releases of 2005’s Childish Things and 2004’s Live in Aught Three to build on the momentum of 2008’s highly decorated Just Us Kids, the James McMurtry story is far from over.

What was playing around your house when you were growing up that first gave you the music bug?
James McMurtry: We had a lot of Johnny Cash, a lot of Bob Dylan, and a lot of Beatles. My dad was a big Dylan fan, but I didn’t care for him much when I was a kid. I thought he sang funny (laughs). But I really liked Cash and, later, Kris Kristofferson. Those were the first two concerts I ever saw.

That’s a pretty good start. What do you remember about those shows?
JM: The Cash show was a big coliseum show, so I could barely see anyone on stage. But I knew I saw seeing something that we weren’t going to see for much longer. It was one of those package shows with Cash, The Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and The Statler Brothers. And what I remember most about it, actually, was that I got to see Carl Parkins sing Blue Suede Shoes, which at the age of seven was a big deal. The Kristofferson show was a few years later at a much smaller venue, but I remember he had this great band. It was a stage full of long hairs and they were all having a great time — that was the first time I remember thinking ‘I want to do that.’

How much of your songwriting do you credit to a family tradition, specifically that of your father?

JM: It’s the same detail. A little bit different — a different muscle, if you will. Prose and verse are two very different things. My father is the only writer in my family, really, so the tradition doesn’t go back all that far. But there were a whole lot of storytellers in my family, I’d say. So there’s definitely an oral tradition.

Do you find a sense of pride in the greater Texas songwriting tradition that you’re a part of? Does that sense of something bigger ever strike you?
JM: I don’t think about it all that often, because I think my songs are every bit as likely to be set in Maryland as they are Texas. From my perspective, I’m just making up stories accordingly to lines in my head. There’s a line in “Rachel’s Song” about the snow you see on coal cars…well, you never see that in Texas (laughs). I actually did see that in Maryland. I was raised in Northern Virginia, and I was riding in the back of someone’s station wagon, and I happened to look out the window and there was a bunch of coal cars that had a dusting of snow on them. I remembered that all the years later and that sparked the song.

What are some things you’ve really enjoyed about having Childish Things and Live in Aught Three re-released this year?
JM: I do like it that the “Live in Aught Three” came out on double vinyl. I love the way the artwork looks all big like that. And we got it remastered for the vinyl, so it sounds very good.

I’ve read where you said your favorite records have always been live records – why is that? What were some of your favorites?
JM: That’s just what we always wanted, growing up as kids. I think Waiting For Columbus (Little Feat, released 1978) was my favorite record for a long, long time. That was a classic Little Feat live performance.

The next live record you did (Live in Europe, 2009) record marked your first shows overseas. Were you surprised at a lot of the differences in European and American crowds?
JM: Oh ya. There were a lot of differences just between various European crowds, as well. We spent a lot of time in Germany, and it seemed like the West Germans all spoke English but were about three words behind, so they were concentrating really hard and you didn’t always feel like you were getting much energy back. The Berliners were a bit reserved, but there was one little town called Laupheimer that didn’t speak a word of English but they were just so glad to have any kind of rock ‘n’ roll, so they went nuts. And then of course the British and Irish were a little more rowdy than the continental crowds.

You haven’t been afraid to stray into the political realm, perhaps more so of late. What do you hope each listener is taking away from those songs – or all your songs, really?
JM: You want the listener to identify with the narrator of the song. That’s why of all my songs, probably the one that touched the most people was “We Can’t Make It Here,” because I think a lot of people at that time in America were living that. That very next record, they worked “Cheney’s Toy” as the single just because it was also a political song, but I don’t think it touched nearly the same number of people. What makes a popular song isn’t what necessarily makes a good song. For me, it’s just a combination of groove and cool words, basically.

Be it political or not, you’ve always taken a great pride in chronicling American life. So tell me, in 2011, what you’re seeing around you in American life?
JM: Everything seems to be shifting, I suppose. The political scene really hasn’t gotten any better despite a change in administration. We also kind of wondered who’s really in charge…and the last couple years to me really demonstrates that it doesn’t really matter if the Democrats or Republicans are in charge. We’re doing the same thing one way or another. Things are getting pretty weird now. I shouldn’t get too fatalistic and say that a vote doesn’t count or anything like that. We’ve still gotta go to the polls and do what we can. I just don’t know if I see where the power lies. I think it’s in the boardrooms. I don’t think it’s in the legislature.

Do you find periods of strife or uncertainty inspiring?
JM: Inspiration is a word that I hear a lot and I don’t really understand it. On a given day I do things or I don’t do things. I don’t know if I’m inspired to do things, really. Fear is inspiring, I suppose. I am inspired by that sometimes. Fear of not having a job, a career.

You’re playing a small listening room here in Atlanta. Are those shows always going to be a little more nerve-racking?
JM: The smaller the room, the more nervous I might get. I’m getting better at that now, I suppose. I’m starting do a lot more solo stuff than I used to, kind of getting re-aquainted with that kind of vibe. There’s no set formula for what’s going to produce a rewarding show, though. Something just clicks. The audience has a good vibe or a good energy. With the band, we usually play more noisy places where there’s a little bit of background chatter, a little bit of room to dance, that sort of thing. But with the solo thing, it’s one of the cool things sonically is that you have absolute control over the dynamics. You can make a lot out of a little.