There aren’t any other songwriters like James McMurtry. Sure, he can rock n’ roll when the mood strikes and he’s never been shy about airing his political grievances– but when it comes to telling stories, his ability to bring characters to life within the confines of a song is unmatched. Currently, James is wrapping up his latest project for New West Records and gearing up for a 2020 tour that will bring him to Macon and The Creek Stage for a sold-out show on Tuesday, January 21st. I caught up with him at home in Lockhart, TX, and I confess that my enthusiasm betrayed me a time or two. Fortunately, Mr. McMurty was there to direct me back onto the highway and provide a little history lesson in the process!
AI- When Complicated Game came out, I was very surprised it didn’t have any of the political anger that was in Just Us Kids and even on Childish Things. But I have to say that all those characters on that album… I can almost detect their political leanings from some of the stories. With “State of the Union”, you seem to have found that anger again. Is this going to be the direction of the latest album you’re working on?
JM- No. The song’s not on the record. I just did it ’cause I felt it at the time. There’s a little bit of social commentary and political statements on this next record… But kind of oblique, indirect.
“South Dakota” on Complicated Game kind of has that feel as well. But more from that character’s particular point of view.
Exactly. I try to weave that stuff in there, but I don’t really want to get on a soapbox most of the time. It’s real easy to write a sermon– and nobody wants to hear it.
Do you think that people expect you to be direct and critical of situations like we find ourselves now in the country? With songs on Childish Things and with Just Us Kids, you were unapologetic in your criticism of President Bush, and so with the tone…
Well, hold on there just second– I actually started “We Can’t Make It Here” under the Clinton administration. So that’s not specifically an anti-Bush song– although, I was no fan of Bush. But it was more about what’s going on. I was critical of Bush on the next record. The character of “Cheney’s Toy” in that song is Bush. A lot people misinterpreted that. They thought I was saying the soldiers were Cheney’s toy– but really, I just gleaned all that stuff from New York times articles where Cheney would tell Bush, “You’re the man,” every day to stoke his ego so he’d go out and sell Cheney’s policies. That was kind of a direct political commentary– and people didn’t like it! (Laughs)
Do you think people expect you to write those songs?
They did for a while. Maybe they still do. And I will write some if I happen to write a good one. Political… It’s not my sole purpose in writing. I was a songwriter before I delved into any kind of politics. This is my job. And sometimes politics comes out because it permeates everything we do. You can’t avoid it. I always try to put in a little bit about the military because we don’t have any war coverage. When I was a kid (during) Vietnam, we didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle. We had the news at six and ten and then there was morning news. But in every one of those hour segments, you saw guys walking along roads in steel helmets looking miserable, carrying guns. It was actual freelance combat footage. A lot of it. Among some of it was wire service– but we haven’t had that since the invasion of Grenada. Reagan did away with the independent war coverage as far as our operations are concerned. So I try to mention that.
My songs are not necessarily anti-war because I can’t figure out what these wars are really about. Everybody’s shoutin’, “Well, it’s about terrorism,” or “It’s about oil!” Nobody really knows because it’s very hard to find information. There are people– some of those embeds are writing good stuff, but you got to dig for it in the internet. You don’t even see it on CNN or Fox. You don’t see what’s going on there. And they make it into a really well-acted, well-scripted TV series. It’s all dramatized. We don’t know what’s going on, so I just try to mention it now and then, so maybe somebody will want to know what’s going on.
Do you think that because everything has to be so stylized and dramatized these days that it’s made us immune to the actuality?
Yeah! We don’t know what’s real. We don’t know what’s going on. This conflict in the Middle East, we’ve been involved in it for 18 years. That’s longer than Vietnam, and Vietnam didn’t end because kids marched in the street. It ended because Walter Cronkite got enough of it. He was the major news anchor that everybody listened to– right, left, and center. We only had four channels, so you didn’t have your cheerleader channel to go to, to express the opinion you already had. You didn’t have Fox or whatever. You had CBS, ABC, and NBC, pretty much PBS hadn’t come along yet. It was really Walter Cronkite and his generation. When they decided the war was bullshit, the war ended.
The next time we really got into a conflict was when Reagan sent Marines into Beirut. And that’s the last time I saw independent coverage– because people were wanderin’ around with cameras and walkin’ up to Marines and sayin’, “Hey what do you think about this?” And the Marines were looking into the camera saying, “This is not our job. This is not our mission. We’re an offensively trained force and you sent us in to guard an airfield on low ground, but you won’t let us take the high ground where the snipers are!” So they lost about eight guys to snipers and that didn’t look good. And then somebody drove a truck bomb into a barracks and blew up 360 Marines… That really didn’t look good. So two weeks later, they invaded Grenada– this little island down by Trinidad with no significance at all. They said it was because they were building a military airport. And they said it was military ’cause it had a 12,000-foot runway– which is also what you needed to land DC-10s and improve your tourist trade. It was very easy to suss out.
There was a columnist named Mike Royko for the Chicago Tribune. He simply called up the British architectural firm that was building the airport and said, “Is that a military field?” And they said, “No sir. If you have a military airport, you got to have more than one runway so you can scramble your jets in multiple directions and not leave them vulnerable to a single missile strike.” So that was all trumped up and they invaded the island and they rescued the American medical students or whatever they said they were rescuing… And there was a bunch of Cubans on the island. Royko asked about that too. “Why are there so many Cubans down there?”And they said, Well Cuban labor is cheaper than bulldozers down here.” So that was pretty easy to suss out too. But the only journalists that made it onto the Island during the invasion were arrested and detained aboard a US aircraft carrier for the duration. Middle America applauded because they were tired of Vietnam guilt and tired of being told that we were imperialist aggressors everywhere… And so Reagan got away with it. That was a huge chunk out of the first amendment that we lost right there.
So how do we get past that now?
I have no idea! People can’t remember when we had actual coverage, and they can’t remember when we didn’t have cable news. I don’t know how you get past that now. That’s a long way back.
Political… It’s not my sole purpose in writing. I was a songwriter before I delved into any kind of politics. This is my job. And sometimes politics comes out because it permeates everything we do. You can’t avoid it. I always try to put in a little bit about the military because we don’t have any war coverage.
With the new record, is it going to be more along the lines of Complicated Game? These deep character studies?
That’s what my songs generally are. It’ll be done differently. I went to LA to make this one.
What studio were you working in?
Groove Masters. We tracked at Groove Masters and we did some overdubs at Arlyn in Austin, and we got some more overdubs to do yet.
I read where you had discussed Ross Hogarth producing. Did that happen?
Yeah, he is producing.
You’d worked with him before, but this would be the first time in that capacity, right?
Yeah. He was Mellencamp’s engineer 30 years ago when I first got signed. And then the first record that I produced was Saint Mary of the Woods, and I hired Ross to mix that. He pretty much saved it. I brought in a mess of tracks and he had to sort it out!
Who all is on this record, the usual suspects? Darren Hess, Ronnie Johnson?
Ronnie Johnson hasn’t been in the band for a while, but my road bassist is Cornbread. Cornbread plays on the road with me. The bass on this record is Sean Hurley, Darren played the drums, and then we had David Grissom playing guitar. I’m probably going to bring in Charlie Sexton to do some of his weird double strum acoustic stuff.
Nice. I can’t wait to hear that. You’re signed on with New West now. Are you looking forward to getting the record out under that label?
Yeah, they do a good job. I talked to Steve Earle about them, and he said he was going to do another tour of duty. I thought, “Well…” Also, I know Logan Rogers from Lightning Rod [Records]. He put out two of my records, and he’s now the vice president up there. So there’s a past connection.
Your son’s [Curtis] out there playing music, has been for a few years now. Do you get to enjoy that as a fan or do you find yourself becoming critical at times?
No, I enjoy it as a fan ’cause he’s way beyond me musically. He’s got a degree in music comp with an emphasis on ethnomusicology. He does a completely different thing.
Do you get an opportunity to perform with him much?
Not too much ’cause there are very few venues where we both fit. If I’m doing a solo thing, I’ll have him come out, usually. He’s opened for the band too. It just depends on if it’s a venue that likes us both when we go there. But our styles are way different.
You’ve said in the past that you’re not much into reading, not much into books. Have you ever considered possibly writing a memoir or an autobiography? Is that something that you may look at down the road?
No. No, definitely not.
I’ve seen you play several times– by yourself, acoustic, and then with the band. You use some different guitar tunings. When did you start doing that? What got you into alternate tunings?
I was in San Antonio and Steve James was down there before he changed his name. He was Steve Cicchetti then. I used to hang around him and he did all kinds of tunings. So I got into it. Then sometimes just writing a song would lead me to a different tuning. I’d be trying to get a sound and I couldn’t get it out of the tunings I knew, so I just started messing with it.
What’s the last new cover song that you learned?
The last cover song that I learned? Last new song… I don’t remember. I used to do “Wild Man From Borneo” in my set– and I did “Rex’s Blues”. There was a while there when I put a cover tune on every record, but I haven’t learned anything in a while. I’ve had enough trouble learnin’ my own songs (laughs)! This last record I wrote real fast!
What’s the name of the new album?
I don’t know yet. Records title themselves by the time they get done.
Do you have a release date yet or we’re just gonna see how it goes?
No, there’s no such thing. My second record was turned in in 1990– and it came out in 1992. You never can tell. Sometimes record company politics, sometimes your own schedule. Nowadays, they tend not to shelve records for very long ’cause labels aren’t rich like they were.
Did you like the idea of hanging onto those songs?
Hanging onto them?
Yeah. Before they’re released. I’d spoken to Ketch Secor not too long ago, and he said that he was more interested in being able to produce and release music as immediately as possible as opposed to the labels hanging onto them to release later.
It’s not really a problem for me except that I have to work. I have to get out on the road and make some money, and that’s easier if the record’s out. But you still want to wait for the right time to put the record out so you can get your promos set up in advance. You gotta have press, you gotta have radio, you know?
When you come to Macon in January, are you coming solo or are you bringing your band?
That’s a band run.
Excellent. Well, I can’t wait to see that, and I believe that I have taken up enough of your time today. I will let you get back to work.
Oh, I’m just registering a truck today– that’s all I’m doin’ (laughs). It’s been sittin’ in my driveway for three years, and I finally got it resurrected. Hopefully, I can get across Lockhart without gettin’ pulled over!