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‘The myth always sells better than the reality:’ James McMurtry isn’t Backing Down Anytime Soon

[Billings Gazette]

By Jake Iverson

James McMurtry remembers the first time he visited Montana. 

“It was in 1976,” he recalled. “My dad was doing some research for a screenplay. He said Montana at that time reminded him of Texas before World War II.”

Writers Larry McMurtry, right, and Diana Ossana pose with their Oscars for best adapted screenplay for their work on “Brokeback Mountain” at the 78th Academy Awards Sunday, March 5, 2006, in Los Angeles. Kevork Djansezian, AP Photo

James’ dad was Larry McMurtry, the iconic author whose work defined how people viewed the West for much of the 20th century. In 1985 he released “Lonesome Dove,” a massive 843-page novel that follows a pair of old cow hands who drive one last herd from Texas to Montana. The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1989 it was adapted into a TV miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval that netted 7 Emmys on 18 nominations and helped pave the way for the “Prestige TV” genre that still dominates the airwaves today. The elder McMurtry also won an Oscar for the “Brokeback Mountain” screenplay, and adaptations of his work like “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” helped usher in the New Hollywood era of American filmmaking. 

With a pedigree like that, it’s all the more remarkable that James has stepped out from his father’s inimitable shadow. The younger McMurtry is also a writer, but he uses his words in songs. And he uses them expertly, too. McMurtry has gained a sterling reputation as the consummate “songwriter’s songwriter.” Even if you’re not super familiar with his work, the folks you listen to almost certainly are. Since 1989, he’s released 10 records. 2021’s “The Horses and the Hounds” is his newest and one of his best, a good entry point for an artist with so many beloved songs it can feel tough to find an in.

James isn’t sure what his dad would make of Montana today. 

“It looks different to me,” he said. “There’s a lot more custom order log houses. That wasn’t going on much in the ’70s.”

That’s a perfectly James McMurtry-esque sentence. He’s a songwriter who notices tiny details like a great journalist, able to drill right into the essence of a place and breathe out a neatly succinct observation about it that goes way deeper than even the most practiced writers are able to get to. 

McMurtry will soon get a chance to see what Montana looks like right now in person. He’s at The Coop in Columbia Falls on Saturday, July 29, and then returns for a more dedicated run through Big Sky Country the first week in August, with a gig at the Rialto Theatre in Bozeman on Friday, Aug. 4, a slot at the Wildlands Festival in Big Sky on Saturday, Aug. 5 and a night in Billings on Sunday, Aug. 6 at the Pub Station.

With that in mind, the Gazette sat down with McMurtry to discuss his outspokenness about the drag bans being passed around the country (including Montana), his love of driving, and the controversy surrounding Jason Aldean’s new single. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity).

Are you paying attention to this controversy going on about this Jason Aldean song? [Aldean’s new single “Try That in a Small Town” has garnered criticism saying the song calls for vigilante violence and recycles racist stereotypes].

Yeah, sort of vaguely.

Why do you think so many country musicians feel this need to pander to audiences like this?

It’s their brand. And it’s been that way for a long time. Jason Aldean did not invent the violent redneck cheerleader genre. That’s been done for a long time. Hank Williams Jr. had “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It’s the same themes about self-reliant survivalists and also how small towns and rural America are somehow morally superior to urban America. Which is stupid. As if rural America doesn’t have fentanyl and meth and incest and murder and rape. It’s kinda sad because there was a time when Nashville had the best songwriters in the country. “Skip A Rope” [Henson Cargill’s 1967 hit that touched on abuse and racism] was cutting edge back then.

And now you’ve got all this rural life that’s just full of tragedy, which is terrible. But it makes good, interesting music. But they would rather rewrite “What have they done with the old home place?” and paint this pastoral, innocent rural America which does not exist. I don’t know if it ever did. 

Do you think there’s a way forward for mainstream country and Americana music to avoid some of these stereotypes? 

They’re not going to because it doesn’t sell. The myth always sells better than the reality. And it takes a lot of work to make something out of that reality. I’d rather do that. I’d rather have enough people to fill a club and really relate to my songs and sing along with it than sell it on the radio. 

But that’s easy for me to say. Nobody’s gonna believe that other stuff coming from me. I couldn’t get on mainstream radio to save my life, no matter what I say. Those of us that can’t be stars remain artists. And I don’t want to say that in a mean way. There’s nothing wrong with stars. There’s nothing wrong with people who can do that. It’s just a different thing. And it sells better.

Are you on social media at all?

Well, we have to, but I hire to have it done. I’m kind of a luddite. If anybody ever friends you saying they’re me, it’s not me. I don’t friend. Facebook is strictly for business. 

Social media is where a lot of the furor over the Aldean thing has bee happening. 

I just don’t understand why people are surprised by it. Because it’s been that way a long time. The only difference now is they’re wearing the racism on the outside. It’s always been there. 

You performed in drag recently in protest of the anti-drag bill in Tennessee. Did you see any material change come from that? 

We did three Tennessee shows, and for all of them I did the encore in drag. At the first on in Knoxville, one guy got real upset and went out on the street and flagged down a policeman and tried to get him to come arrest me. He just shrugged his shoulders and walked off. And I did it again in Texas a couple of times. And finally that Texas bill actually passed and it hasn’t been frozen by a federal judge like it did in Tennessee. I did one of my residency shows [at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas] all in drag, because we don’t really do an encore at those shows. 

In so many of your songs, like “Canola Fields” and “Lights of Cheyenne”, you talk about driving. Is it a meditative experience for you to get out on long drives? 

Yeah, I have to drive. When I get home, I get kind of weird. It’s strange, it’s just the motion addiction of specifically the wheel of a rented Chevy van. I can’t get in a car and do the same thing. It doesn’t work. 

Montana is like that. There’s a lot of place that take a long time to get to, and it gives you a lot of time to think.

For me, it’s not so much the space. I like traffic, too. I love driving the L.A. freeway. Very well constructed, well designed roads and people who know how to drive. You come around a corner at 75 miles an hour and suddenly there’s a wall of brake lights. Everybody stops. Nobody hits anything. You just kind of sway with the traffic like it’s a school of fish. It’s the motion as much as anything. Motion and math. Spatial relations. 

That about does it for the questions. Anything else you’d like to add? 

I have a question, actually. I know there was a drag bill proposed in Montana. Did that go through?

It did

As I remember, there was some language in that bill that says something about flamboyant costumes and makeup. Would that not apply to rodeo clowns? I’ve seen rodeo clowns out there with skirt before. And they certainly have makeup and a flamboyance about them. So are they going to enforce that at a PBR event? Or a PRCA rodeo? Looks like that would put them in jeopardy, if you really want to enforce that. We should launch a complaint.