Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Jonathan Sanders
(December 2011)

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 had a way of being ahead of the curve in your lyrics, predicting the sub-prime crisis in "Choctaw Bingo" and the never-ending recession with "We Can't Make It Here Anymore." Are you more naturally aware of what's going on in the world, or do you think other musicians have been afraid to speak so candidly through their music?

JM: Not really, but if I hear something that sounds like a song, then I use it. I might not understand it; I'm just trying to put songs together.

PSF: You once quoted David Bromberg, arguing that the only power an artist really has is in choosing what he says and does on stage. Do you ever feel like you've gotten more power beyond that level now that artists are freer to take control of other aspects of their careers?

JM: In my mind, being free to control it means there's just less budget. We're not dealing with major labels anymore, so we're not necessarily in cahoots with them but we don't have that budget to work with either. I don't know if you'd call that "freedom."

PSF: I enjoyed your recent blog post about Austin being a good place to leave your stuff Ö what jumped out at me was your comment that it took you ten years playing live in the city to earn your place in the local scene. Do you think enough young musicians today are willing to work that hard to earn their place?

JM: Yeah, there are, but that quote may be slightly out of context. I don't know that I really had to work that hard to be part of the scene. It was just that I did most of my gigs elsewhere. It wasn't until we started doing the regular thing at the Continental Club that I really got on the Austin radar. It doesn't usually sell out; you can always get in the door. But there tend to be regulars who keep coming back and then there are the travelers. A lot of travelers come in.

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: 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: With "Cheney's Toy," it seemed you had the problem where so many people don't even read the newspaper, they don't read the lyrics. They hear a few words and decide what they think the song's about.

JM: That's always the danger. "Cheney's Toy" was never going to have that kind of popularity, because it wasn't necessarily a character the audience could see itself in, or hear itself in. It was kind of a rant, and it was a pretty cool rant but that's not going to be a popular song.

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: 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: Our magazine had an article this summer which touched on that period after 9/11 when Steve Earle had the balls to write "John Walker Blues" and put his entire career out on the line. I wish more artists were willing to do that and say what they think instead of what they think we want to hear.

JM: But there are those who do. The Dixie Chicks laughed all the way to the bank, people were running over their CDís and they'd had to pay for every one of those things. It was very strange when Bush was that popular. You really started to feel you couldn't say anything against him without getting immediate backlash. Even Austin's not as "Blue State" as you'd think. When I first recorded "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" I did a solo version and I sung it on the radio, KGSR, during "Morning Drive" time, and there were some pretty nasty emails to the website before we even got home. That was in '04 when Bush was really flying high. But it changed real fast. There was a guy who booed me at a concert and he didn't seem to realize he was surrounded by "Vets for Peace."

PSF: How do you think you'll be remembered for your body of work?

JM: That's hard to say. Right now if I had to guess it'd be for "We Can't Make It Here Anymore." Maybe I can top that someday.

PSF: I know you reissued the live album this year. Are you working on any new material?

JM: Yeah we have one new song, and we'll probably do some recording in December.

PSF: What artists are you listening to now who you think more people ought to hear?

JM: I'm not listening to anyone right now really. I donít get to listen too much when I'm on the road. We just go down the road; our ears are worn out from the night before.

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.

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