James McMurtry – It’s a small town, son
It Had To Happen was recorded during last year’s infamous Texas ice storm at Cedar Creek studios. “It’s got the neatest console,” McMurtry says, perking up. “It used to be in Graceland. ‘In the Ghetto’ was cut on that board. I had a lot of trouble getting radio frequencies through my guitar amps. It was really giving me fits until I heard Elvis singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ through my Lab L-5. I was joking with Fred, the owner: ‘I sure would like my songs to come through Elvis’s amp,’ and he pointed and said, well, in a way it sort of is…”
There’s an old magic eight ball next to my plate
When I ask it a question, regarding my fate
It says, “reply hazy, please try again”
It won’t say where I’m going
It don’t know where I’ve been
–“Right Here Now”
The most striking song on It Had To Happen is the spare “12 O’Clock Whistle”, a portrait of a grandmother and grandson in a small West Texas town where kids gaily chase the truck that sprays insecticide — “A very common pastime in West Texas to this day,” McMurtry explains. “They don’t spray DDT anymore, but they spray something.” The grandma in the song warns, “We’re goin’ through nigger town, honey lock the doors/’Course that’s not what you’re supposed to call ’em anymore.” Still, the hardness of her heart gives way in the chorus: “Won’t you stay with me ’till the sun goes down/On that flat top mountain to the west of town.” It’s a brutal and sweet picture of the American soul’s capacity for uncommon resentment and vulnerability.
That’s McMurtry’s art in a snapshot. “You know how John Prine on that record The Missing Years,” McMurtry starts, “he’s got this song about Jesus, with all this goofy stuff going on, and then he’s got that chorus, ‘Billy bought some popcorn, Charlie bought a car.’ Doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the song. I kind of took a cue from that.”
And just when I had given up talking about his songs, their wise and unexpected images, their gaps and spaces that somehow never break their unity, McMurtry relents and addresses those spaces. “It leaves them to the ears of the listener a little more. You can decide for yourself what it is. Some writers want you to get exactly what they’re thinking, but I’m never exactly sure exactly what I’m thinking. I just want it to sound cool. I want the words to ring.
“There’s no set process from one song to the next,” he continues. “They all have to invent themselves. Some of them are just an excuse for a guitar hook. ‘Safe Side’ [from Candyland] was one of the few where I’ve written music first. I had this guitar part worked out and I had to have words to go with it. Which is harder than doing it the other way around. The whole storyline of a song can change for the sake of a rhyme, if it makes it better. The difficult part is letting go and following the song, even if it goes against the ideas you have to start with. Sometimes the song doesn’t want to go that way. You have to decide: Am I gonna do it my way for the sake of doing it my way, or let it go the way it wants to go? You can choke a song real bad, make it boring.
“The worst thing is trying to make a point. That kills most songs. Makes ’em preachy. If the song wants to make a point, that’s fine. I’m not as tightass as the guy in ‘Safe Side’, though I may have that streak. I was worried when I cut that song, thought that people are gonna think I’m a Nazi. They’re gonna think this is me talking. And some of them did.”
Let’s go chase tornadoes, just me and you
Don’t often catch ’em but man when you do
Take my catch rope, crawl out on the wing
We won’t come down till we own that thing
Sit on the front porch, quiet as a mouse
One last time before they close on the house
What makes those characters convincing, makes their stories stick, is the trembling, cutting tenor of McMurtry’s voice, hardly nimble or wide of range, but as stripped and honest as a condemned man on a scaffold. It’s the same unsettling voice I hear on the line — a severely American voice, not because it’s rural or twangy or rough, but because it carries a disarming isolation, a diffident resolution and independence, come what may. McMurtry cuts into phrasings, chews the words like tinfoil, and you can hear the sizing-up squint in his eyes — the sound of a voice that looks through you, sure as you’re standing there.
It’s all McMurtry’s way of confronting and even getting close to thoughts and people, their cruelties and reckless needs, that we’d generally prefer to keep at a distance. “Those stories are there,” he says. “Smoothing them over doesn’t render those sentiments nonexistent by any means. They’re there inside of us. That’s how we make our racists. We have grandmas who think it’s okay. But it doesn’t sell. Try to get that on country radio. People want to hear ‘Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine’. Not to put down Tom T. Hall; it’s just not all that way. There’s a dark side to those old dogs.”