James McMurtry on Songwriting: “It’s The Best Job I Can Get”
James McMurtry has been recording songs steeped in honest examination of what it means to live in the heartland of America since his first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, came out in 1989. The son of legendary Texas writer Larry McMurtry, James grew his literary roots in a different direction, telling the tales of the real Texas in an honest, rootsy fashion which resonated with listeners even as his music remained uncorrupted by the mass exposure.
Since then he’s produced eight studio albums, most recently Just Us Kids in 2008, and he’s proven to have an eye toward the subtle shifts in power in the last decade. His song “Choctaw Bingo,” which spoke of the subprime mortgage process long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers so resonated with Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum that he called for naming it our new National Anthem, as it “caught America in the Thelma and Louise moment before it goes off the cliff.” McMurtry is one of those rare songwriters who speaks his mind and stands behind the truth of what he writes. Like few others among his contemporaries, he’s built his career by staying the course, defining a sound which remains distinctly his.
In a phone conversation with McMurtry as he traveled between shows on the east coast in October, the songwriter spoke with Perfect Sound Forever about sticking your neck out as an artist, the art of conversing with people who would rather shut out your point of view entirely, and whether he’s managed to write a song yet which can live up to Steve Earle’s “Billy Austin.”
PSF: After two decades as a songwriter, what keeps music meaningful to you?
JM: Well, it’s the only thing I have credentials to do, you know? It’s the best job I can get.
PSF: I think Robert Earl Keen said something once to the effect that country music lost its way when artists stopped writing about real people. You, meanwhile, have excelled at putting the voices of real Americans in your songs, from the split-second violence of “Terry” to the burning desperation of Alice Walker on “Fire Line Road.” How do you consistently bring these characters to life?
JM: A song usually starts with a couple lines and the melody, and then I have to figure out who said ’em. The characters come from the lines, mostly.
PSF: Do you tend to write the lyrics more before the music?
JM: No, it happens pretty much at the same time.
PSF: You’ve said in the past that more people ought to be activists in some way, because we got into the current mess when too many people “stayed out of the parade.” What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
JM: I think they’re off to a good start, but I hope they start to coalesce around something. It’s really cool that it’s gone worldwide. I don’t know that they necessarily need to be more organized, but they definitely need to keep the pressure up. It would help if there was somebody with the charisma of a Martin Luther King, somebody with a central voice everyone could hear and get behind. I don’t see that happening, but maybe it will, you never know.
PSF: Does it get hard to have a conversation with anyone when people get so stuck on one side that they won’t listen to anything the other side has to say?
JM: That’s the problem with the country right now, it seems to me. I kind of link it to the fragmentation of our media in the post-cable TV world. The war in Vietnam didn’t end because we were marching in the street. It ended because Walter Cronkite and this generation got enough of it. He went out there and told us so. Everybody listened to Cronkite; he was the central American voice. And we can’t have that now because there are too many channels. Everybody can listen to exactly what he wants to hear and disregard the rest, as the song says.
PSF: You wrote in Billboard back in ’06 that you learned from Steve Earle’s “Billy Austin” that it was possible to write a good politically motivated song. Do you think any of your recent songs have reached that level?
JM: I don’t know if they’ve reached that level, artistically, but “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” certainly turned the corner for us. The Internet’s how that one really took off. We put that out as a free download before we’d even cut the record, and more people heard that one song than any of my records.
PSF: My favorite quote was from the end of that Billboard article when you said “It’s not our job as artists to be loved. It’s our job to be remembered.” Do you still feel that way?
JM: Yeah, it doesn’t hurt to be loved too. But you’ve got to be remembered.
PSF: What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do? Or do you wish sometimes we’d just stop asking the same stupid questions?
JM: I think I’ve been asked most of ’em. It doesn’t really bother me as long as they’re interested.
This is an excerpt from my interview with James McMurtry which ran in the current issue of Perfect Sound Forever. To read the full interview, I encourage you to follow the above link … the magazine is full of great writing on amazing music, and deserves a bigger following.