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James McMurtry Blends Politics, Americana in a Changing Music Industry


By Rob Salkowitz

It was twilight on the longest day of the year when James McMurtry and his three bandmates took the stage at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern, the latest stop on a six week tour through the Pacific and mountain west. The show had been sold out for months, and the club was packed with faithful fans of the Austin, Texas-based singer songwriter. The lanky 62 year-old took quick stock of the room before launching into the opening bars of “Fuller Brush Man,” a track from his 1995 album, Where’d You Hide the Body (Columbia Records). Before long, the joint was jumping.

Dedication to his craft and a tireless work ethic account for McMurtry’s perseverance in an industry that has made it nearly impossible for idiosyncratic artists to earn a living, but it’s his blend of traditional style and socially potent songwriting that has kept his audience coming back decade after decade.

“The last few years have been really good business,” McMurtry said in a conversation before the show. “I know I’m not getting any more popular, but before, we used to sell out on the weekends but struggle through the week. Now we’re tending to sell out most shows.” In a wry deadpan, he added, “Maybe it’s because my crowd is aging, and they don’t have to get up for work in the mornings anymore.”

From AOR to Americana

James McMurtry may not be a household name, but he has been plying his trade for 35 years and has earned a reputation for well-crafted lyrics and lean, sinewy, guitar-driven rockers, including his 2002 cult classic “Choctaw Bingo.” He’s also one of the last of a generation of musicians who were able to build an audience before the advent of streaming, and have managed to continue making music professionally through constant touring and occasional record releases on small, independent labels.

When McMurtry first got started in the late 1980s, there were still a few opportunities for unknowns to get airplay in the dying days of AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) radio. His first album, produced by John Mellencamp, made some noise, but then his career almost got derailed by delays.

“My second record got shelved for two years. That turned out to be fortunate because by the time it came out, the Adult Alternative Airplay format was becoming popular with radio programmers,” he said. “There weren’t many stations, so my record was number one on the AAA chart for a little while.”

By the late 1990s, AAA had come to be dominated by more commercial acts. McMurtry found a new home in the “Americana” genre, which he initially dismissed as “scruffy white guys with guitars,” but says has now become much more diverse and interesting. Several of his records in the 2000s were recognized by the Americana Music Awards and did well enough commercially that McMurtry, to his surprise, managed to earn some artist royalties.

“There’s No Revenue Stream Unless You’re Touring”

By the time streaming upended the music business and made it impossible for all but the biggest stars to make a living from record sales, McMurtry had locked in a small but dedicated following willing to come out and see the band play live.

“There’s just no revenue stream unless you’re touring,” he said. “My son [musician Curtis McMurtry] was telling me it’s hard for people at his level, and it’s hard for the people who are above me, playing theatres. We’re four guys in a van, band and crew. The main cost is the hotel rooms every night, but it’s still a decent profit margin. If you’re doing theatres, you really have to pack them because they’ve got ushers, security, all this overhead. If they don’t pack the theatre, the promoter loses, the house loses, the band loses.”

McMurtry says his current label, New West Records, is supportive of artists like himself who no longer have a place in the current business, but still have a devoted audience. He has previously recorded with Columbia, Sugar Hill and other labels.

“I Can’t Believe McMurtry’s Gone Woke!”

One thing that has helped McMurtry cement his niche is that he has staked out some high ground in the country-rock-folk world of Americana and roots music. He is a Blue Texan: a proud progressive from the Lone Star state with a withering critique of militarism, neoliberal capitalism and intolerance, wrapped in a laconic drawl, work shirt and jeans. Despite the fact that millions of Texans and plenty of other musical heirs of the Woody Guthrie tradition share these views, this is a neat bit of code switching in a culture increasingly fixated on stereotypical signifiers of tribal identity.

McMurtry says that on the rare occasions when he checks social media, he is amused to come across someone claiming to be a long-time fan saying “I can’t believe McMurtry’s gone woke!” “I’m thinking, ‘well, you haven’t listened very close, have you?’ But I’m glad you liked it to start with.”

For example, in 2005’s “We Can’t Make It Here,” he offers a prescient view into the consequences of globalism on local communities, not from the 10,000 foot view of an economist, but by recounting the many ways it is hollowing out the lives of everyday people. Though the lyrics are as political as a punk rock polemic, McMurtry’s delivery anchors it in the idiom of populist country music and gives it greater cultural resonance.

Like everything else about his music, McMurtry’s observations about politics are thoughtful. In “Operation Never Mind,” from his most recent album The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records, 2021), he dissects the machinery of modern warfare in terms of the relationship between the regular military, America’s vast web of contractors and mercenaries, and a public kept deliberately in the dark:

We got an operation going on

It don’t have to trouble you and me

A KBR man cooks a T-bone

A soldier’s choking down an MRE

We just go on about our business

Drop the kids off at the mall

Play the Black Ops on the laptop

And don’t make too big a fuss about it all

Last year, McMurtry made news by performing in a dress at a gig in Tennessee when the state legislature approved a law targeting drag shows and crossdressing (the law’s enforcement had been enjoined before it went into effect, but that was not widely known at the time). “Tennessee and Texas were going on these tirades about drag shows,” he said, shaking his head. “Why pick on the drag queens? It’s because they’re different, they’re an easy target. So I thought, why don’t I get me a red dress, and our opening act, BettySoo, put on a suit. There was one guy who got really upset and found a cop, but the cop just shrugged his shoulders and walked off. The way I see it, if we don’t stick up for the drag queens, who’s going to stick up for us?”

Songs and gestures this pointed are a minority in a catalog comprised mainly of well-observed character studies and slices of life, mainly of blue collar and rural America, shot through with empathy and insight. Whatever your politics, it is hard to resist the genuineness and poignance of McMurtry’s storytelling when he turns his attention to the gritty texture of life.

“I try to weave my perspective into a song so that I don’t have this big giant political statement or sermon,” he said. “Mostly I write about relationships, which is what people think about most of the time. Most of my characters would never agree with me if they were real. But you can’t break character. If you do, you lose the song.”

“If I Don’t Have More Songs, I Don’t Have a Business”

For McMurtry, the song is everything. He works diligently at his craft, putting together his lyrics like a Swiss watchmaker. Though his voice is a rough instrument, he has learned to write to his strengths, concentrating on how lines will be sung in performance. “You want to write words that sing well. It’s different from poetry, which you can read silently to yourself if you want. In a song, you can’t have words that tongue-tie you. You can’t do weird diphthongs. When I started writing for the voice, it greatly improved my songwriting.”

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