july 2008

Catching Up with James McMurtry

Seeing America and Himself Without Blinders
What’s a little pointed political commentary among friends?

By David McGee

Photos by Audrey Harrod


Set to a thumping, ominous beat, intoned in a deadpan drawl, chronicling the cascading woes of ordinary, working class Americans—a homeless, disabled Vietnam Vet victimized by a VA budget that’s stretched too thin as wounded vets from the Iraq war pour into the system; the unemployed textile mill worker whose abandoned neighborhood has turned into a drug dealer’s haven; the bar owner whose customers are vanishing in mountains of debt and multiple minimum wage jobs that barely keep a roof over their heads, much less his; the pregnant high school girl left to her own devices “when it’s way too late to just say no”—and mercilessly torching the power brokers responsible for the damage (“I can see ‘em all now/they haunt my dreams/all lily-white and squeaky clean/they’ve never known want/they’ve never known need/their shit don’t stink/and their kids don’t bleed/their kids won’t bleed in their damned little war”), James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” released just prior to the 2004 elections but included on his 2005 album, Childish Things, was the boldest, most pointed attack yet by a musical artist on the corporate-friendly Bush Administration policies that had been tearing the country apart, a real throwback of a protest song that didn’t hedge its bets, understood the difference between uniting and dividing, was compassionate towards those the neocons had abandoned in their rush to power and saw very clearly that the enemy is within. It made Childish Things the best selling of his eight albums to date and was honored along with the album as Best Song and Best Album by the Americana Music Association. It also made him the darling of the left, the scourge of the right.

All of which is fine with James, son of the celebrated novelist Larry McMurtry but widely recognized on his own merits as one of his generation’s most important songwriters. Signed to Columbia in 1989 after his father had passed along a demo tape to John Mellencamp, who wound up producing James’s first album (Too Long In the Wasteland), McMurtry has spent the past decade-plus in fruitful tenures with Sugar Hill, Compadre and, now, with this ninth album, Just Us Kids, Lightning Rod Records, a new label founded by Logan Rogers, formerly VP of A&R at Compadre. Having worked with gifted producers along the way—Mellencamp, Don Dixon, Lloyd Maines—McMurtry has produced his last four albums himself. He learned the power of the Internet when he released “We Can’t Make It Here” as a free download and, as he notes, “It got more attention than anything we had ever put on CD.” Fan-made videos of “We Can’t Make It Here” have racked up more than 150,000 viewings on YouTube, which is not as much as that ridiculous dancing guy but it ain’t chicken feed either. He and his band, The Heartless Bastards (bassist Ronnie Johnson and drummer Daren Hess; McMurtry is on guitar) and sound man Tim Holt travel to gigs in a van, pack themselves up and go on to the next town. Other than releasing albums on his own label (which he says he’ll never do because he doesn’t want to deal with the paperwork and distributors), he’s the very model of the modern major artist.

Just Us Kids is every bit as scabrous towards the powerful and empathetic with the powerless as Childish Things, and more political—even the seemingly non-political songs offer some subtle comments on the state of the union, as in the winsome character study, “Ruby and Carlos,” in which Carlos, a returning and damaged Gulf War vet, nearly throws away the love of his life while pursuing his futile, post-war dream of making it on Music Row, having come back a changed man, “heavier now and longer haired/Looking past the saddle shed/From way on back inside his head.” Mostly the album’s a smart balance between overtly political vivisesctions such as “God Bless America,” “Cheney’s Toy,” “Ruins Of the Realm” and “You’d A’Thought” and acutely observed tales of people struggling on the fringes of society, realizing they’re growing old but not growing up and lacking all ambition to change their plight (“Just Us Kids”) or the dead enders of “Fire Line Road” passing their days in a drug stupor. In short, Just Us Kids is a fully realized, scintillatingly literary work by a modern day Steinbeck, who understands what happens when those with money, power and privilege lord it over the huddled masses, whose lives are consequently rent asunder by drugs, violence and aberrant behavior. Or as James put it in “We Can’t Make It Here”: “We’ll work for food/we’ll die for oil/we’ll kill for power/and to us the spoils/the billionaires get to pay less tax/the working poor get to fall through the cracks.” Looking through those cracks, McMurtry tells the truth about the world he sees there, which looks suspiciously like what we see out our windows and hear about on the news every day now.

TheBlueGrassSpecial.com caught up with James at his Austin home between trips to the east and west coast promoting Just Us Kids. In typical fashion, he pulls no punches in discussing the course of his career, his ambitions, his songwriting process and the issues of the day as he sees them.


As a result of the notoriety of “We Can’t Make It Here,” when you were writing the material for Just Us Kids did you feel like there was a little more at stake, that there were expectations that hadn’t been there before?

James McMurtry: Well, there probably are, but my main motivation in making a record is fear that I won’t have the songs ready in time. Doesn’t really matter what I did before; it’s the project at hand that looms in front of me and I have to get that done and get it out so we can get to touring and keep the business going. I wouldn’t say there was any more pressure this time than at any other time; possibly less, because we are on a little bit of a roll from the last one. And this one’s far outselling it so far in the same timeframe.

Do you attribute that at all to the attention for “We Can’t Make It Here”?

McMurtry: Oh, certainly, yeah. I didn’t expect that to happen. I’d always shied away from political songs ‘cause I was afraid they would drag everything down, but that one came along at the right time and place, and a lot of people really related to it.

Was there, for lack of a better term, an animating incident that spurred the writing of that song? We’ve all been watching what’s happened the last seven years in this country. What triggered the writing of that song, finally?

McMurtry: I live in Texas and I vote Democrat, so I felt like my vote didn’t count, and the only voice I had was the record deal. So I had to try something.

And then you released the song on the Internet and it took off.

McMurtry: Yeah, that was insane! We put it out as a free download and it got more attention than anything we had ever put on CD. On this album “Cheney’s Toy” was a free download. That’s a little bit different song; it’s more of a cartoon.

Right. You don’t ever mention the president by name in that song but imply a relationship of a different nature with the vice president.

McMurtry: And a lot of people think I’m talking about the soldiers, too. I have that recurring image of the soldier, so people think I’m saying the soldier is Cheney’s toy, which I’m not at all. Bush thinks he’s the president, but he’s Cheney’s toy, as far as I’m concerned.

There are several political songs on this album but it’s an interesting blend of stories that could apply to any time in our history and songs that are specific to our time.

McMurtry: There’s a political thread through some of them that aren’t political, like the Carlos character in “Ruby and Carlos” is a veteran of the first Gulf War. Those are a bunch of people that aren’t talk about much. But something like 12,000 of them have died from weird cancers since returning home—that’s something like a 33 percent post-conflict casualty rate, which is unprecedented in history. And yet they’re saying Gulf War Syndrome doesn’t exist and depleted uranium is nothing to worry about. I don’t think so. I got those figures from veterans’ groups—Veterans for Peace put that together (veteransforpeace.org). Check out their site. They were the ones that really put Cindy Sheehan on the map. She was speaking at one of their events when she decided to go to Crawford. It was the veterans that walked down that road with her, but the press described them as “placard wielding anti-war activists.” Didn’t use the word “veteran”—they could have given her a whole lot of credibility if they had. By the end they had managed to paint her as some kind of raving old hippie. But she was not that at all—she was a housewife from Vacaville who had lost a son in a war of choice. There’s also Iraq Veterans Against the War (ivaw.org), and one of the guys spoke the same night Sheehan did, before she went to Crawford, a kid named Mike Hoffman—I say “kid,” but he’s probably a thousand years old now—he wound up in Iraq. He’s from somewhere in Pennsylvania where Bethlehem Steel is the major employer. I talked to him after his speech and it turned out he had pretty much lived every aspect of “We Can’t Make It Here.” His dad works for Bethlehem, but he couldn’t get hired because the company had started outsourcing; and Mack Truck had moved all their stuff to Mexico, so he went into the Marines for two years, and three days before he was supposed to get out, he got stop-lossed and went to Iraq. He was there for a year and founded Iraq Veterans Against the War. After he gets out, he finds his dad has a host of health problems from working in the steel mill, and Bethlehem declares bankruptcy. So they have to decide, “Do we pay the mortgage or do we pay for dad’s medical?” He lost all his health benefits. This is insane, and very, very common now.

5Surely you’re dismayed by the complicity of the press in this administration’s many follies and lawless acts.

McMurtry: Certainly! I’m dismayed by the press and by the Democratic leadership as well. If you read Seymour Hersh’s recent piece in the New Yorker about the U.S. covert buildup in Iran (“Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2008)—

It’s frightening.

McMurtry: Right. And the Democrats signed off on that shit. We ought to throw out the whole government like they do in Spain, strip it down.

A few months back you wrote a piece for The Huffington Post explaining why you were voting for Hillary Clinton. Obviously she’s not going to be the nominee. How are you feeling about Obama, especially in light of his recent backtracking on some key issues. How does that sit with you?

McMurtry: That doesn’t sit well, but we cannot survive another Republication administration, absolutely. So we have to go with Obama, whatever he turns out to be. It bothers me that he got in, but it happened, so we have to deal with it.

Why does him being the nominee bother you?

McMurtry: I think Hillary would have done a better job. I think she’s more of a deal maker; he’s more a rock star. I don’t know, neither of them have much experience, and I don’t know that either one is the ideal candidate. People that get elected are not necessarily people that can run the government. I’d rather see someone who’s kind of boring, like Chris Dodd, or somebody like that. He’s got the seniority and he knows how the machine works. That’s what I’d like to see but it’s hard to find somebody like that who’s charismatic enough to get votes. That may be the problem with democracy. I wonder how in the hell did Eisenhower ever get elected? You know? I guess at that time it mattered that he was a general who pulled off the most incredible invasion that had ever been done in the history of man, and oversaw this huge machine. Nobody minded that he had never seen combat. They gave him the reins and he pulled it off.

Has your impetus for doing what you do changed at all since you got into the business? Are you doing it for different reasons now than when you started?

McMurtry: I don’t think so. Still do it so women will talk to me, mostly.

Simple, basic needs, huh?

McMurtry: Yep.

Your dad’s a writer, you grew up in a literary household. When you reflect back, can you recall why you were drawn to songwriting rather than prose?

McMurtry: I didn’t like to read very much. My father is a novelist because he’s an incredibly avid reader. He’s actually spent more time being a rare book seller and collector than he has writing novels. He’s put out plenty of novels, but his main thing was to have enough to read. I didn’t care to read much. It was a chore to me. I don’t mind what I’ve had to read, but I don’t have the hunger for it that he did, so I would never have developed into the prose writer that he is. But I did like to listen to songs, so that’s what I learned.


How old were you when you started writing songs?

McMurtry: I was about 18. But I didn’t learn how to finish a song for another five years or so. Writing a few verses and choruses is different than writing whole songs. There’s a process to finishing something and you have to learn it.

And who among the artists you admired then did you learn most from with regard to the process?

McMurtry: Probably Kris Kristofferson. I was performing long before I finished any songs. I was performing when I was 18 or 19 in Tuscon, but it was all cover stuff. It wasn’t until I was 25 or so that I started working my own stuff into the set.

Was there a point to it in those 18 to 25 years? Did you know where you were going with this?

McMurtry: Naw, I didn’t have a clue, really. I kinda had a plan in my late 20s to go to Nashville and try to be a staff writer. Fortunately, Mellencamp intervened when he and Larry were getting together to rewrite a script that they had written some years before. I had a demo tape of actual original songs I had written, so I sent it with Larry to see if John might want to cut one of the songs so that when I got to Nashville I could say, “I’ve already got a Mellencamp cut.” Then they’ll rent you an apartment. If you say you’re a songwriter, they’ll say, “What do you do?” Everybody in that town is a songwriter. But he called back. He didn’t want to cut the songs but he was interested in producing an album, so I got a foothold there.

In reading other interviews with you, I notice that you don’t tell stories about how hard it was for you and your dad to get along when you were growing up. It seems like a real solid relationship.

McMurtry: Yeah, it always has been.

You started with one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of the major labels, but since 1995 have been on small, independent labels. Your career on record began at the dawn of the digital age. Now the demise of the CD is being widely predicted. How has this evolution of the business affected you as an artist?

McMurtry: Well, the budget shrunk immediately. I started out working with bigger budgets and two-inch analog tape. Columbia cut me loose and I dropped down to an indie label, but I got a better royalty rate. As my sales could expect to drop, I at least got a better piece of ‘em. To where now I’m actually seeing artist royalties off my recent stuff. As time went on I learned to do more and more of the job, so I cold do it cheaper. Now I actually see artist royalties; my records recoup. As far as the technology goes, I don’t really care what format it comes out on. I’m not audiophile enough to really care. We were gonna do a vinyl release on this album, but it turns out it’s sixty minutes long, and that doesn’t work for vinyl. You wind up with thirty minute sides, and the closer you get to the middle of the disc the worse the sound quality. So we would have had to do a double album with fifteen-minute sides. It would have sounded great, but you would have constantly been flipping the records, and the manufacturing costs would have eaten up the profits. So we let that one go. I kinda like vinyl for the size of the package—the pictures look better on the vinyl, but as far as the sound, I don’t know. I’m not like most producer-artist people. I can hear some things, can’t hear others (laughs).


Are you approaching the point where you’re going to be a self-sustaining artist, releasing your own records, touring and not having to share the profits with anyone else?

McMurtry: I doubt it. I’d rather have a label do the legwork for me. I don’t want to mess with distribution. There may come a day when you don’t need that, when the business is all downloads, but right now I like selling hard copies. We take CDs to shows and sell them. It still works for me. This record sold 20,000 copies in three months; we used to sell that many in a year. But I don’t want to be on the phone all day making sure they’re in the stores. Somebody else can do that.

Were the songs on this record specifically written for this project, or were some things you had carried over from the previous album or had in a notebook?

McMurtry: They’re all carried over. I work from a scrapbook, basically a scrap pile of lyric pieces, and what goes on the record is whatever gets finished in time for the record. When I book the studio time I don’t necessarily have that many songs ready yet. Quite often I’m writing the lyrics while I’m supposed to be recording and I have to call the guys and say, “Hang out for a couple of hours.” That’s how the last song on the album happened to be subtitled “Leonard Cohen Must Die.”

You name two people on the record as being on the “Must Die” list, the other being Timbuk 3’s pat mAcdonald.

McMurtry: Well the last song kind of reminded me of Cohen. I came in about four hours late because I was writing the lyrics and I said, “Well you wouldn’t have been waitin’ all day it if wasn’t for Leonard Cohen.” Leonard Cohen must die. And the other song was written in pat mAcdonald’s guitar tuning, so I titled that “pat mAcdonald Must Die” and him play harp on it. He had a storage locker in Austin that he had to come in and clear out, and while he was here we hijacked him, got him in the studio.

These songs—“Hurricane Party,” “Fireline Road,” “Ruby and Carlos”—are those inspired by real events?

McMurtry: They’re works of fiction that are inspired by current events, as most fiction is. I made up the characters. Most of my songs start with a line or two and a melody. “Ruby” started with a bad Waffle House experience somewhere in the south, and our sound man, Tim Holt, got in the van and said, “I guess we must have crossed the Mason Dumb-Ass line.” And I had to think, Who would say that? Somehow I came up with Ruby.

Are you a prolific writer?

McMurtry: No! I write when I have to.

So there’s guys like me that sit around and try to find deep meanings in these songs. But do you go in with that in mind, some binding concept that holds the piece together?

McMurtry: You can’t be too binding with a song. You have to let it have its head. You start with something and you think you’re going in a certain direction, but you have to listen to the song as you write it. Sometimes you’ll come up with a line that “sings” better than the line you thought you were trying to write. And that’s what you have to go with, and it might change the entire meaning of the song.

Did these songs undergo dramatic rewrites after you got in the studio?

McMurtry: Not that I remember. I might have a hacked a verse out of one or two of them. “Hurricane Party” used to have another verse that I edited out after we recorded the song.

How many days of the year do you spend on the road now?

McMurtry: Oh, not that many. I think we’ll be out half of this year in two or three week hops. The thing about Austin is that you can work either coast in three and a half to four weeks and get back home, reconnect your home life for a couple of weeks then go back out again.

And your whole band travels in a van?

McMurtry: Yeah, that’s the way we’ve been doing it the last fifteen years or so. It does get wearying. I don’t mind the driving but I do mind the lifting. I don’t like carrying that stuff in and out of bars anymore.

You’ve been producing yourself for awhile, but in the past you’ve worked with Mellencap, Don Dixon, Lloyd Maines. They all had solid history in the studio, good track records. Since you’ve been producing yourself, looking back on the experience of working with them, what did you gain that’s influenced or affected your ideas about using the studio as a creative tool.

McMurtry: I learned tricks from all of them. I’m about out of tricks; I need to get somebody else to do the next one. Kind of felt like I hit a wall on this one. I was aware that I had used up pretty much everything I knew. I need to go back to producer school, somehow, and figure this thing out. I did a better job than I had on any of my other productions. I took time at the beginning, sussing out microphones and getting the sounds better, where before I just kinda charged into it and sorted everything out later. But some things you can’t sort out later.

I’ve talked to a lot of artists over the years who have produced themselves, and the pattern seems to be that after one or two albums they go back to an experienced producer because they found it too difficult to be in charge of their own recording and all the details that come with the job. Did you find it difficult to be the performer as well as the person who judged your performance from that perspective?

McMurtry: It is schizophrenic that way, because the producer has to be a grownup and the artist has to be somewhat of a child to create. So you have to be both. But I think I got pretty good bullshit detectors so I can kinda figure it out when it’s not working.

Is it hard for you to get to the point of letting go, saying “We’re done. This is good.” Or do you labor and worry over it until someone tears you away from it?

McMurtry: In my world that’s easy to figure out because that happens when you run out of time and money. You don’t have a choice.

It’s just pure economics at some point.

McMurtry: Yeah, definitely. But there is a saying in the business when somebody talks about somebody’s record and says it’s a great record, and the response is, “Of course it’s a great record. They didn’t give him enough money to fuck it up.”

So there is an upside to it, then.

McMurtry: There is. You can overthink and overproduce if you have the time and the latitude to do it. I haven’t had that in awhile.

Was this production in particular more trying because you’ve become more aware of your own limitations in the studio?

McMurtry: Not really. I had a good engineer and he didn’t have nearly the limitations that I do, so if I couldn’t figure something out, he could.

As you travel around in your van, what are you hearing from your audiences about how they’re feeling about the country, about what’s going on in the world?

McMurtry: That’s kind of a biased sample because if they’re coming to my shows they’re probably thinking a certain way. But the vast majority of the people I talk to are saying, “Keep speaking your mind.” Some say, “I don’t agree with you but I’m glad you speak your mind anyway.” There’s a few who still have their whole identities wrapped up in George Bush, and you cannot reach them because they’re believers. No amount of facts piled up will dissuade them from their belief. It’s kind of like a religion. It’s about faith, not about facts. We recently did an e-mail blast around the 4th of July to remind people to listen to “Cheney’s Toy” because it’s up for an AMA award. I had just read that Seymour Hersh piece, so I put a blurb in there to urge people to read it too, and we put a link in to the New Yorker online and a link for “Fresh Air” on NPR, because Hersh just did an interview on that show about the covert actions going on in Iran right now. We lost 12 subscribers on our e-mail list, and some of them responded—it’s interesting. None of them mentioned Hersh. They all went after me. And there’s this thing that if I’m against the war I must be against the troops. You have the military family that’s done two or three tours and they think I’m against them. You know, some of my friends are in the military too, and they feel differently. So I get, “What have you done to protect our rights?” Well, I’m using them. That’s what I’m doing. Because if you don’t use them they’ll go away. One of the problems with free speech is that people will freely express opinions that people won’t like. It’s a little inconvenient.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024