Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry swore he’d never pen a political tune.
“I used to not like to hear other songwriters make a point politically,” he says by phone from Austin. “But Steve Earle is perfectly capable of writing a good political song that doesn’t turn me off. ‘The Ballad of Billy Austin’ is really a great song. It’s kind of what turned my head around. If he can do it, I can at least try.”
He succeeded. “Just Us Kids”, McMurtry’s acclaimed new CD, offers three piercingly potent numbers - “Cheney’s Toy,” “God Bless America” and “The Governor.” During “Cheney’s Toy,” the usually soft-spoken artist doesn’t hem and haw. “You’re the man/Show ‘em what you’re made of/You’re no longer daddy’s boy,” he sings in the song’s chorus. “You’re the man/That they’re all afraid of/But you’re only Cheney’s toy.”
“I always felt like the Bush administration was a Cheney administration,” he says. “A lot of people have misinterpreted that song. They think the soldiers are Cheney’s toys. But I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m talking about Bush being Cheney’s toy.”
In “The Governor” and “God Bless America,” McMurtry deals with the abuse of power and selling the war in Iraq, respectively.
“We promote the myth that we have no cross division here. But in fact we do,” he says. “There are people here that are not subject to the laws that the rest of us have to obey. If you are the governor, then you are not going to get in trouble. You’re above the law.”
These are heady, controversial subjects, to say the least. But the 46-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native has no worries about fan backlash. McMurtry has been publicly expressing himself through words and music since his 1989 debut disc, “Too Long in the Wasteland.” Music for him hasn’t been about hit records and high-profile album sales, it’s been about art. The son of respected Lone Star scribe Larry McMurtry, who wrote Lonesome Dove and co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, is an artistic free spirit. Even though he was once signed to a major label (Columbia Records), much of his output has been on independents where budgets are limited and promotion gets creative.
So does touring. The economic constraints of hitting the road in 2008 aren’t new to James McMurtry.
“If you’re going to tour now, you have to do it in a van, cheap,” he says. “We know how to do it. We’ve done it that way for 20 years.”
Like his father, he communicates through his work. But he’s never lived in his dad’s shadow, unlike many children of a famous parent.
“I don’t do what he does,” he says. “He’s a novelist, and I write songs. I think that spared me a lot of pain. He became a novelist because he was driven to read, and I was into music. We may have gotten it from the same source, though. My grandmother was a pretty good storyteller. Everybody told stories back then. That’s what we did. We may have lost that in the era of TV. In those times before radio, that’s how you entertained yourself.”
He’s still telling stories, and now some of them are political.