I call James McMurtry late one morning when I’m visiting Austin, Texas. By now, I’ve seen him play three times, in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and California, and I’m always struck by the way audiences in different parts of the country identify with his songs. Live with his band, McMurtry plays a catchy, danceable mixture of roadhouse blues, swamp pop, rock and roll, and country, while his acoustic shows feature his songwriting more predominantly. At first, on the telephone, I find it difficult to draw him out. As the discussion progresses, though, we return to certain points from earlier in the conversation, and his willingness to discuss music and regional history proves as interesting as his insights into his songwriting and creative processes.
The Rumpus: You seem like you appeal to both country and rock audiences. How you navigate the space between two different commercial genres?
James McMurtry: I think a lot of people exist between those genres. We’ve toured with a lot of bands that fit into that, the Bottle Rockets or the Dead Ringers, people like that. We listened to country music growing up, and we also listened to Crazy Horse and the Rolling Stones. We’re not trying to appeal to any particular set. We do what we do, and it just so happens some people like it.
Rumpus: What got you started writing political songs?
McMurtry: I did one called “Safe Side” many years ago that was sort of social commentary, not so much political. I didn’t get political until the Childish Things record, about 2005. I felt powerless because I tend to vote Democratic. In Texas, that doesn’t really matter in the national election. I felt like the only power I had was a record deal. Steve Earle was influential in that because I’d always shied away from political songs. I was afraid my songs would turn into sermons, and nobody wants to pay a cover to hear a sermon. I noticed Steve Earle could write pretty good political songs. He got his point across, and they were good songs. He put out a whole album of those right before the 2008 election. I figured if he could do a whole record, I could do one song, so I put out “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore.” I got lucky with that one. It did turn out to be a good song, and it also had the quality of a popular song in that the listener could hear his-or herself in it. Suddenly I’m a political songwriter; that’s what I’m supposed to be. I put out Just Us Kids, and the single was “Cheney’s Toy,” which was kind of a cool song, but it didn’t have a chance like “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” because it’s more of a rant. It’s not written from the point of view of a character the listener can identify with.
Rumpus: Do you resist being labeled a political songwriter?
McMurtry: You don’t want to be labeled anything. Unfortunately, you have to, or they can’t package you. I don’t mind if people listen to my political stuff, but it’s a fraction of what I do.
Rumpus: Who are your main influences as a songwriter?
McMurtry: Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, mostly.
Rumpus: Are your influences as a guitar player different from your influences as a songwriter?
McMurtry: Yeah. I’m not sure who they are, though. I’d have to say Keith Richards. I like to listen to a lot of guitar players that are so far beyond me, I can’t really call them influences. Like Sonny Landreth. That guy’s out in space somewhere, an absolute wizard. He’ll do things you’re not supposed to be able to do. He’ll play behind the slide and run it off the end of the neck so it goes off the audible scale, that kind of stuff, but it’s still soulful; it’s still music.
Rumpus: One doesn’t hear many songs about people who think about selling their stock and moving to the coast. Where do you find the inspiration for the characters in your songs?
McMurtry: A lot of it has to do with what I need the next line to do, what rhyme scheme I have to satisfy. That can change the whole character. That’s where selling the stock and living on the coast comes from. I had to wind up with ghost.
Rumpus: Nevertheless, that’s not something one expects to hear in a rock or a country song.
McMurtry: Country songs are generally selling fantasy, and so am I. I’m just selling a different fantasy.
Rumpus: How would you characterize the fantasy you’re selling as opposed to the one mainstream country artists sell?
McMurtry: I sell the fantasy of the disgruntled third son that sees through the myth. I can’t blame country for wanting to sell the myth, but they’re still selling what they have done with the old home place. They’re rewriting that constantly. The last big one was that Montgomery Gentry song, “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.” “He’ll live and die in the eye of the urban storm / Daddy won’t sell the farm.” I try to do it the other way and write it from somebody that knows what they did to the old home place. Your evil aunt Francis got power of attorney and sold it out from under everybody, and they developed it. That’s what happens in real life.
Rumpus: Do you think of yourself as a realistic alternative to the fantasy mainstream country sells?
McMurtry: Certainly, but it’s still fiction. It’s not reality. It’s just a more twisted fiction.
Rumpus: In the current political environment, people often talk about what they feel America used to be. Do you feel like you hear a similar nostalgia in contemporary country music?
McMurtry: In mainstream country, it goes back to the question of hearing yourself in the song, but it’s not so much hearing the self you know as the self you want to be. You want to be the guy that will stand in the way of the urban storm, but you’re probably not. But that’s how you want to see yourself, so that works. I can’t tell one country song from another anymore. Since the eighties, it seems like pretty much every hit was written by the same five guys, or different teams of five guys, and then all the records are recorded by another team of five guys. And then they find the pretty artist that can sell it. There are exceptions. I’ve seen Kenny Chesney play guitar, and he’s a badass.
Rumpus: Where else have you lived? Do you write about places you’ve lived?
McMurtry: No. I write about places I’ve seen through the windshield, as often as not.
Rumpus: How did you get started writing songs?
McMurtry: I was playing these outdoor beer garden gigs in Tucson when I was a student. I hadn’t written anything, so it was all covers, and I got tired of doing that. I wanted something that was my own. When I moved to San Antonio, I was doing the same thing. I got involved in that Kerrville Folk Festival, and they had a songwriter contest, so I managed to scrape some songs together for that. They have six winners. They say they don’t have places, but you know the guy that really won is the guy that gets invited back next year. I was in the winner’s circle, but I didn’t get invited back to the main stage. But it was a little bit of a boost. From that, I could start getting gigs in Austin. My plan at that point was to move to Nashville and try to be a staff writer, one of those guys that pieces together the next hit.
Rumpus: You wanted to be one of those five guys?
McMurtry: Yeah. Actually, at that time, there was one guy, Don Schlitz, who was writing songs by himself that were killer. He ruled the roost back then. And then there were a couple of two man teams. Fred Koller and Pat Alger had a pretty good run. I knew Fred Kohler, so I could go up there and co-write with him. I never got anything cut, but that’s what I thought I could do. Around that time, my dad was working with Mellencamp on a screenplay, and they were supposed to get together and do a rewrite. I had a cassette demo of what I’d written, and I said, “Give that to John” because I was hoping John would cut one of my songs, and then when I got to Nashville they’d rent me an apartment because I already had a cut. To my surprise, John didn’t want to cut my songs; he wanted to produce my record.
Rumpus: Did you not see yourself as a performer, then?
McMurtry: I was a performer, yeah. I just didn’t think I could get my own record deal. I didn’t have that confidence. I always liked to play live. I got tired of doing Jimmy Buffet covers. I did mostly obscure covers, John Hartford and David Bromberg, people nobody I was playing to had every heard of. I had to throw in something they’d heard of, so they’d order another pitcher.
Rumpus: When you started playing out, did you make a living doing it pretty quickly?
McMurtry: No. I was working in restaurants in San Antonio. A friend of mine was renovating a restaurant and bar, so I went down there and worked for him for a while. About the time I bailed out, Lonesome Dove was getting made into a miniseries. I knew the producer, so I got a reading for that. That was the first good money I made.
Rumpus: And then you moved to Austin in 1989?
McMurtry: Yeah. By then I already had the record deal.
Rumpus: Too Long in the Wasteland came out right around then, right?
McMurtry: It came out in August of 1989.
Rumpus: How has Austin changed over the years? How has the music scene changed?
McMurtry: The cost of living has gone up, so it’s harder for musicians. Also, physically it’s changed a lot. For a while, they were building so many hi-rises we’d leave town on tour and come back, and the skyline would be different. There were cranes everywhere building these tall glass structures. Most of them are condos. I don’t know who’s living in those things, but it’s completely transformed downtown. Down where Liberty Lunch used to be, it’s the whole city hall complex now, a bunch of glass towers. It has improved the food considerably, though. You can go down the street and get a good glass of wine and some Indian food. You couldn’t do that 20 years ago.
Rumpus: When the culture artists and musicians create draws people to cities, cities become saturated, and artists and musicians can’t live in them anymore. How do you feel, seeing that as a musician? You still live in Austin, yes?
McMurtry: Oh, definitely. It’s a good place for me. It’s a good place for my son to grow up. He and his buddies run up and down South Congress a lot. Well, 20 years ago, that was crack central. Right where the Continental Club is, it’s all spruced up. They fixed up the old Santa Fe across the street, and the Austin Motel. Those are nice little motels now. Those were roach motels then. That was where the drug dealers hung out.
Rumpus: Are you married? Tell me about your family.
McMurtry: I’m divorced. One boy. He just drove home from college yesterday. Now he’s a good songwriter. He can compose and everything. He’s got a couple bands.
Rumpus: Did you encourage him to go into music?
McMurtry: No, he found that on his own.
Rumpus: Do you find you prefer urban or rural life?
McMurtry: I don’t know. I’m torn between the two because I like to hunt, and I like to fish, but I also like to be able to walk down the block and get a good glass of sauvignon blanc. The problem with the city is, it takes me 45 minutes to get to the fishing hole. I’ve got an old truck with a canoe in the back, and I never take the canoe out because if I do, I’m liable to talk myself out of going. To hunt, I’ve got to drive five hours. I’ve got some family land up in North Texas I can hunt on.