[Interview] James McMurtry Knows How to Folk
If you want raw songwriting at its best, look no further than James McMurtry. The award winning seasoned rock/folk singer and guitarist has been creating and performing music for almost 30 years, mixing his unique brand of tongue in cheek insightfulness with a heavy dose of Americana that fans have come to love. This Saturday, McMurtry took the stage to a packed auditorium at Atlanta’s own Variety Playhouse, along with veteran bandmates Daren Hess, Cornbread, and Tim Holt. I caught up with him to get acquainted before the show.
You live in Austin, but you decided to embark on your “Westbound and Down” Summer tour that’s taking you from Jackson, Miss. to Big Sky, MT.
It’s actually two different tours. We’ve got this first leg we’re going out mid-south and mid-west, we turn around at Effingham, IL and go back to Austin by way of Tulsa, and then next month, mid-July, we’re going up the Rockies and down the west coast.
That’s a lot of range to cover. What inspired you to travel through those states in particular and take this tour?
That’s where we got offers from that would pay us money (laughs). Our whole business is road now; there are very little record sales and you don’t get a lot for streaming, so we try to work as much as we can.
You’ve released many records, obviously, 12 including your live albums. When did you first realize that you wanted to become a songwriter and how do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since the release of your first record, Too Long in the Wasteland, to today?
When I was a kid I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I grew up, but I hadn’t put any thought into songwriting until I was about nine-years-old. Somebody turned me on to Kris Kristofferson; he was the first one I was ever introduced to as a songwriter. I just kind of thought songs came out of the air; I listened to the singers, I didn’t worry about where the songs came from. It was Kris’ first record, Kristofferson, which was re-released as Me and Bobby McGee very shortly after because both Roger Miller and Janis Joplin had huge hits off that song, so they re- packaged it. But that’s how I started writing songs in my late teens, early 20s. I was doing beer garden gigs around Tucson and later San Antonio, and I started working my own music along into the set, because you had to do mostly covers, ‘cause that’s what the beer drinkers wanted. But every now and then I’d sneak in one of my own, and it just kind of went from there. I don’t know that I’ve evolved all that much as a writer from Wasteland on, I just don’t worry as much about whether or not a song makes sense. Because I have learned that songs don’t have to make sense. It’s okay if they do, but there are perfectly good songs that make no sense whatsoever.
Right, it’s more about the emotional context.
And the groove and the melody. And how that affects your emotions. You know, it's not just worded with a song.
You mentioned Johnny Cash earlier, but as an artist, who would you say some of your other biggest influences have been?
More Kristofferson as a songwriting influence. He writes real tight structured verse; you can sing it or talk it with equal effectiveness. The band and also (the group) Crazy Horse as sonic influences.
Between your Live in Europe album, and Complicated Game, your most recent release, there was a six-year gap. Did you take time off from writing at all during this hiatus, or were you letting yourself become inspired as you went along, rather than rushing the writing process?
I never write all that much. It wasn’t really a hiatus; we were on the road most of that time. And our tour draw held up pretty good; I mean we were still getting offers from clubs. It was when that draw started to fall off, that’s always the signal that you’ve got to make another record.
Six years is a long haul! But your tours were going strong.
I don’t know why it held up in those years. But we’re going to kick out another record soon.
Many of your songs on this record run a very real narrative within a rich emotional context that I find refreshing, and think resonates with people. Songs like “You Got to Me," “Copper Canteen," and “She Loves Me” paint a very authentic picture of how both intimate and messy relationships can be, and there’s so much emotional maturity to your songwriting overall. How much of your own life and experiences are wrapped into your lyrics?
Very little. I mean, I use things that I’ve learned from my own life, but I don’t write autobiographically at all. There was one song on the It Had to Happen record called “Twelve O’ Clock Whistle” where a lot of the lines are verbatim from my grandmother. And the setting and the action kind of mirror some of my childhood, but it’s still fiction.
Is “Copper Canteen” fictional?
“Copper Canteen” in purely fictional; that’s a Yankee song (laughs). That guy goes ice fishing, I’ve never done that.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “We Can’t Make It Here," from the Childish Things album that won both song and album of the year at the Americana Music Awards. The song is about the everyday hardships of working class Americans. Do you still enjoy writing those grass roots political ballads and do you plan to do any more in the future?
I don’t write any kind of song as an act of will. I happened to write that song and it happened to be political. It is more difficult to write a good political song than anything else because there’s a temptation to inject your own opinion into it, which forces the song to support your opinion, and songs don’t always want to do that. You wind up with a sermon most of the time, and that turns people off. In that particular case, I did sort of mostly get my opinion across, but I got it across through the voice of a fictional character; James McMurtry is not the narrator there. And with songs on the new record, a lot of those characters do not agree with me politically. The guy in “Carlisle’s Haul” grows up in a commercial fishing town where they really don’t want any kind of government regulation of fisheries, ‘cause that effects how many fish they catch, whereas I think we should regulate if we want to continue to have fisheries of any kind.
Your band has been with you for many years. Are they on tour with you this time around?
Yes. We don’t have the same bass player; we’ve got Corn Bread on the bass, Tim Holtz plays guitar and accordion, and Darron Hess on drums.
I was listening to Complicated Game again last night, and it sounded like there were some woodwind pipes on the album as well.
Yeah, those were from Ireland. C.C. Adcock, the producer, e-mailed the track to a few musicians. I wasn’t around for that portion of the recording; the guys and I would come in and record our stuff, then we’d hop in the van and go out touring to make some money. C.C. and Mike Napolitano would listen back to whatever we did and think about what they would want (for mixing). I was there for one of Ivan Neville’s harmony sessions, which was pretty amazing because usually, harmony vocal sessions are painful. Trying to get somebody to match your phrasing and learn the lines and hit the right notes all in one day, it can take a whole day, and it took him less than an hour. He nailed it and they said, “Thank you,” and he said, “Let me do it again; I think I can do one more.”
And he kept going until he was satisfied, which didn’t take long. You know Benmont Tench played piano and B3 on that and I wasn’t there for his session. I think the story has he had a girlfriend in New Orleans, Mike and C.C. found out about it, and they went out and kidnapped him out of some bar and told him to come in there and play keyboards on it. I do have an actual picture that they sent me of him sitting at the B3 at Mike’s house, working on the part.
You mentioned possibly working on some new material. Have you already started that process, and can we expect any new music from you in the near future?
It’s an ongoing process. I pretty much just jot stuff down on the notes app on my cell phone as I go along. Then every now and then I review it to see if I have any verses that match the same rhyme and meter.
Photos by Stephanie Heath for Bullet Music