Fierce Convictions in Song: James McMurtry Coming to WRJ

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry is coming to Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction for a sold-out show tomorrow night. (Courtesy photograph)

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry is coming to Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction for a sold-out show tomorrow night. (Courtesy photograph)

In the world of James McMurtry, a woman talks about quitting drinking but even as the words slip from her mouth she knows she won’t, and probably never will. A father looks at his son’s youthful fire with a mixture of admiration and middle-aged weariness, recalling his own ambitions when he was “young and the world was flat.” Out on the Great Plains, migrants heading west stop to rest, decide to stay, scratch away enough soil to let roots take hold, and try not to get blown away like dust.

And in one of McMurtry’s best-known songs, We Can’t Make It Here, on the 2005 release Childish Things, the Texan songwriter and singer rolled out a dirge-like anthem about a country weary of war, where the American Dream is bought and sold on Visa and Mastercard, factories have padlocked their doors, and minimum wage is just that — the minimum.

Other songs, and songwriters, have staked claim to this territory, but We Can’t Make It Here is more scathing than most recent efforts, and filled with a righteous conviction that attention must be paid. Its unsparing portrait of a country that can’t live up to its promise of a fair shake and a living wage for all, while a rarified few gorge themselves at the trough, was prescient, given that the financial collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession were three years away.

We Can’t Make It Here and Childish Things won the Americana Music Awards for Song and Album of the Year in 2006, and Stephen King, who in addition to being a gazillion-selling author, co-owns a radio station and writes about music for Entertainment Weekly, called McMurtry “maybe the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”

McMurtry, whose solo performance tomorrow night at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction is sold out, has been lauded for his powers of observation and economy with words. And a Washington Post article noted that while his song writing is praised, “what gets overlooked ... is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player.”

But one thing you won’t find in McMurtry’s songs is an exortation to come on work it on out in the name of love, light my fire, or a chorus that pleads, “Ooh baby baby.”

That choice has “probably been detrimental to my career,” McMurtry said dryly in a telephone interview from Harrisonburg, Va., where he was going to play a gig that evening. He paused. “I’m not ruling it out.”

Also not found in McMurtry’s work are the obvious hooks and repeated choruses that are typically the anchors of a top-40 pop song. “You can kill a good line in a chorus,” McMurtry said. “I’ve never been good at writing choruses, and I shy away from them.”

McMurtry is almost all the way through a tour that’s swung through Colorado, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. This has been a solo tour, without the back-up of his band The Heartless Bastards. After the Tupelo engagement he continues on to Londonderry, N.H., and Jay Peak in Vermont before returning to his home base of Austin at the end of March.

McMurtry, it turns out, spent some time in Vermont when he was 13, at Camp Lanakila in Fairlee. “I drove past it a couple of years ago. I realized when we were at camp they were building that stretch of highway (I-91).” He doesn’t remember whether he was there four or six weeks. Doesn’t really matter, he said: “It seemed like a long time to me.”

It’s obligatory at this point to mention that his father is the novelist Larry McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show, recipient of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, and co-writer of the screenplay for the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name.

But after some 25 years in the music business, and 10 albums to his credit, James McMurtry has outlasted the comparisons to his father that were perhaps inevitable when he was starting out. Like other observers of the American scene, whether songwriter or novelist, he chronicles the dispossessed, the nomadic and the just plain weird, rattling around in the lonelier corners of the country.

He tells their stories straight, but he doesn’t condescend to them. He has an ear for the way people talk, their cadences and vernacular, and a storyteller’s eye for the significant detail: a river winding like a silver eel, relatives scattering like quail after a family reunion, a boy who sees both sides of everything and found he could not move.

McMurtry’s singing and speaking voice are similar: low, although he says he now sings in a higher range than he used to, and a little gravelly. When he started out he didn’t really know the mechanics of singing, he said, and drinking and smoking two packs a day didn’t help. A voice coach taught McMurtry how to breathe, where to pitch his voice, how to rest it, and he gave up the cigarettes.

He also had to teach himself the finer points of the guitar. It wasn’t really in the plan to become a solo recording artist: the plan was to go to Nashville, pitch his songs and have some one else sing them. But that didn’t go quite as intended.

Long story short, his father was writing a movie script for John Mellencamp, and passed Mellencamp some of his son’s songs with the hope that maybe Mellencamp would record one. Mellencamp had another idea: he could produce McMurtry’s first album. Too Long in the Wasteland was released by Columbia Records in 1989, and garnered a lot of attention.

McMurtry grew up in Texas and outside Washington, D.C. From an early age, he said, he wanted to be Johnny Cash. His father “had an old mono record player, with a really heavy tone arm,” and he listened avidly to the music Cash recorded for Sun Records. He saw his first concert at age 7, when his mother took him to see Cash, the Carter Family, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers perform in Richmond, Va.

It was Cash’s “voice and his sound, a really sparse sound” that made an indelible impression on the 7-year-old McMurtry. “He sounded real.” McMurtry also cites Kris Kristofferson as an influence, noting that both Cash and Kristofferson have the ability to take a song and “sing it or talk it with equal skill.” Kristofferson’s diction, although it has a conversational ease, is so precise, McMurtry said, that “every syllable falls in the pocket.”

At 50, McMurtry has weathered the ups and downs of a volatile music industry overtaken, at dizzying speed, by technological change. He started out at a time when record labels talked about album-oriented rock; shuffled into the adult album alternative category and then was slotted into a category called Americana, which means, he said, “everything that falls between the cracks — blues, country. It’s kind of esoteric but somehow it survives. Every time a new format comes along I’m almost afraid it will outgrow me.”

The business is “upside down from the way it used to be,” he said. Musicians used to tour to promote their records; now they put out records to promote their live performances. “I like playing live,” he said. “It’s really necessary now because it’s the only way to make any money.” CDs are nearly extinct and royalties on downloads have decreased: a trip to the mail box isn’t what it used to be, McMurtry said.

It’s been four years since he put out his last album Live in Europe, and he has now amassed enough songs to think about putting out another one. This time around he doesn’t want to produce. “I produced four albums myself because no one else wanted to do it. I got into a thing where I had to have a record out fast. ... I started doing producing myself mostly out of expedience.”

Songs might begin as “a couple of lines and a melody. If it’s true enough to keep me up at night then it’s enough to finish a song. Otherwise it goes on a scrap pile.” He used to write songs on a legal pad, and he said, “if I’m still bearing down on something, I get out a legal pad and try to find a skinny table next to a wall.” The sheets of legal-sized paper, with verses on them, go on the wall, and the song is built up from there, as if he were framing a house and then adding the ornamentation piece by piece.

Although McMurtry’s songs focus most often on particular characters in particular circumstances, he hasn’t been reluctant to make his political views known, in such songs as We Can’t Make It Here and Cheney’s Toy. He used to skirt warily around material that was clearly political because he didn’t want to write sermons, but the times forced his hand, to an extent. When he wrote We Can’t Make It Here in 2004, he did so, he said, because “I thought the only power I had was a record deal. ... A lot of people took that very personally, although it wasn’t strictly an anti-Bush song.”

But the speed and ferocity of the comments posted on his website when the song got airplay taught him, he said, the power of the Internet. “It got more attention than any CD I’d put out in years.”

Lately, he’s used the blog on his website to talk about environmental and gun- control issues, and there’s perhaps enough of a contrarian in him that he doesn’t always hew in an obvious way to one side of the argument.

Engaged in environmental issues, yes; opposed to the Keystone pipeline, yes; opposed to nuclear power, not necessarily. Gun owner and hunter: yes; former member of the NRA, yes; member now, no. He gave up his membership after the NRA held a rally in Denver 10 days after the Columbine shooting in Colorado. “That was a community that needed to mourn its children,” he said. “Any organization that thinks that’s a cool thing to do doesn’t get my money.” He hasn’t taken on politics lately, although he feels the need, he said. There’s a conundrum, though. “I don’t really know who the villains are anymore, and I’m not really sure who the good guys are.” He thought for a moment. “They might be the same people.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at or 603-727-3211.