James McMurtry and His Complicated Games

James McMurtry
Complicated Game
Complicated Game

No one ever said that being a modern troubadour was easy work. You can ask a guy like James McMurtry all about it.

You can be the son of an iconic novelist. You can have your 1989 debut album produced by John Mellencamp. You can be hailed as the critical darling of literary Americana. None of that guarantees that success will drop in your lap. McMurtry has been going through the cycle (write, record, tour, repeat) for so long that he’s become a fixture in the American musical landscape and thereby all the easier to overlook. Still, his Lou Reed-esque deadpan vocal delivery serving up quaint slices of everyday life remains novel in music today as it was when Too Long In The Wasteland and Where’d You Hide the Body first took root in the underbelly of amplified American folk.

McMurtry recently unleashed Complicated Game, his first studio album in six years. The musical growth in his sound has been subtle; with more conviction in his voice comes a more pronounced sense of “oomph” from his band. The subjects of his songs, however, continue to mine the ever-flowing well of small town woes, sticky politics, gun cleaning, and good old fashioned displacement.

Strangely enough, McMurtry is a songwriter who has a special affinity for the characters who might not agree with him politically. Speaking his mind has proved to be a little more problematic, as when his 2005 song “Can’t Make It Here” became an accidental hit for the socialist sect and a rallying song for the Occupy movement. But James McMurtry continues to make the narratives work for him, or despite him, on 12 new songs that will assure fans that the six year wait was worth it.

When PopMatters called up James McMurtry, he was not at home nor was he on the road. It was a Friday evening and he decided to take the call wherever his social life dropped him that night.

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There is a quotation from your website that reads “Back before Napster and Spotify, we toured to promote record sales. Now we make records to promote tour dates.”

Yes. We used to tour to promote record sales. Now we put out records to promote tour dates. If we have records out then maybe you guys will write about us and we can get features in local papers and people will know when we’re coming to town. It used to be that the tours were just to advertise the record and we made our money off record sales. We don’t make money off record sales that much anymore. Our main money comes off the road, so we need the records to promote the road rather than the other way around.

You have been in the recording business since 1989. What are some other ups and downs that you’ve noticed along the way?

I don’t know, mine have been mostly steady lows climbing to the middle here and there. I started out on a major label and dropped down to indie [labels] after that. I made more money off the indie records because the budgets were smaller and [the records] would actually recoup. There was a time when I actually did get some mailbox money, ten or 15 years ago. I would get record royalties. And during the course of that time I learned to tour pretty cheap. We toured in a van, it was four of us and we just stripped down as much as we can. The changes that wrecked a lot of bands didn’t wreck us because we knew how to tour cheap. We knew how to make a living on the road. So when it came to the time when you had to do that, to make a living at all, we already knew it.

Would you say that it’s easier or harder now?

It’s harder now because we’re getting older and we need more money. We’re trying to step it up a little bit. Gas priced can kill you nowadays. We demand a certain … I wouldn’t say “luxuries,” [but] amenities that we didn’t [demand before]. We shared hotel rooms, we don’t do that anymore because we found that we play a lot better if everybody had their own room. We all have our own rooms, even if it’s a Motel 6. If you tour in a van, you can afford hotels every night. If you each get your own room, you get better rest. I got so worn out listening to someone else’s T.V. shows back in those days. Things picked up when I decided “Fuck it, I don’t care if I can’t afford it, we’re all getting our own rooms now. Every night.” We played better and our shows drew better. So the money came in to cover it. It helped out instantly. I wish I would have learned that early on.

Well, maybe now a young band will read this and take the suggestion!

Young bands, when you’re really young, you can couch-crash. You can sleep on floors. You’re going to have to if you want to get a band on the road at all. My son tours solo because he can’t afford to take a band on the road yet. He does a great job. One of his strengths as an bandleader and an arranger, he has a music comp degree. He can really hear the big picture. He’s just brilliant with instrumentation. But it’s his first record, so doesn’t have the funds to do that yet. It came out last year. It’s called Respectable Enemy and it’s produced by Will Sexton.

Are the characters in your songs as transient as you?

I don’t know about “transient.” The “Carlisle’s Haul” kid is pretty well-rooted in his old fishing town. The “South Dakota” guy is a soldier because that’s what you do way out in rural America because there’s not that many jobs. He comes back home to be a cowboy and his ranch gets obliterated so he’s got to go back to being a soldier.

I don’t know if these are transient people. I am transient. That’s where I find these characters. Mostly I get what I’m writing through the windshield a lot now because that’s what we see. The lead character in “South Dakota”, I didn’t mean to make him a soldier initially. My father called up in the fall of 2013 and said “did you hear about the tragedy?” And I said “what tragedy?” And he said that an early blizzard came through and killed a whole bunch of cows in South Dakota, took some ranchers out of business.

It puzzled me at first because my father absolutely hates cows. He hates cows so much that he hates horses because they were in close proximity to cows when he was a kid. He grew up ranching, so he has an affinity for the ranching people. So I thought I ought to write a song about this. I started into it, but one of the things that I’ve noticed about rural life is that a lot of those rural towns you come through don’t have a Welcome Home sign for a servicemen. So many servicemen come from out there, what are you going to do? There’s only so many jobs down at the seed mill or whatever. There’s X number of jobs, and X+50 number of people. I guess that’s probably why I made him a soldier.

With you being on the road so much, is it difficult to stay rooted in a particular musical community?

It’s easy in Austin because there’s a lot of musicians. I’ve got a regular gig at the Continental Club every Wednesday night and a solo gig on Tuesday nights upstairs in the gallery. When I’m home I’m still playing. We got those mid-week gigs we usually have some weekend work around Texas and Louisiana, places like that. We stay busy musically. Austin’s a live music town. Pretty much everybody that does it travels at one point or another, but we all circle back home now and then. We have a reunion every once in a while.

But you do have a song called “Ain’t Got a Place”.

That was the last one I wrote. I think that was the only song I wrote in 15 minutes in my life. I always heard about people doing that. I flew into New Orleans on a Thursday after the Wednesday night midnight gig, so I just crashed when I got there. I flew out there mostly to listen to mixes so that we wouldn’t have to e-mail them back and forth. Then the damn ProTools crashed. Something went wrong with the computer so we spent all afternoon not getting much done. Then I went up to a room above the R bar, on Royal street, I got a little drunk and pissed off. [laughs] I had about the right mixture of drunk and pissed-off. If you get the mixture right, you can write a song but you better write it fast. [laughs] Because you’re not going to stay balanced for very long. I got real lucky with that one. It’s like a Guy Clark song. I just started playing with opposites: east/west, up/down, whatever.

I never thought of you as a politically minded songwriter, but your song “Can’t Make It Here” ended up casting you in a political light. Did that identity feel thrust upon you?

Yes. For a minute there, I was supposed to be the new Woody Guthrie or something like that. I didn’t really rise to the occasion because straight-out activism doesn’t really suit me. I just happened to get lucky with that one song. I do continue to weave social commentary into my songs but I don’t usually try to put it out front like that. It’s really dicey to do that, it’s very easy to turn it into a sermon. You turn into a preacher if you try to write a song that really makes your point. I don’t know how Steve Earle manages to do that consistently. He’s really good at making his point and still writing a good song. I have to let the song make its point for the most part. And that’s a rare instance of the song’s point matching my point.

On this new record, if I met a lot of these characters on the street, they would not agree with me politically. The “Carlisle’s Haul” kid, I happen to think that we do need to regulate fisheries or we’re not going to have any fish. But if I were trying to make a living in commercial fishing, I might be inclined to overfish or offseason fish. But there’s that line “Hear them crabbers cuss the weather / And they cuss the government too.” I mean, it must be a bitch to be caught between the weather and the government when you’re trying to make a living. It’s got to be a hard life. I’m much more of a socialist than some of my characters are.

And putting them in the form of a song gives them a longer life.

It’s sung in your voice, so people are going to think it’s me. They’re going to think it’s my idea and my opinion, which it might not be. My job is to write the best possible song. That usually means staying in character, even if I don’t agree with the characters. And that can get you in trouble sometimes.

What’s the biggest trouble you’ve been in?

The biggest trouble I’ve been in, there was a song called “12 O’Clock Whistle” on the It Had to Happen record back in the mid-’90s. That may be the closest [thing] to an autobiographical [song] that I ever wrote. But the line that got me in trouble was verbatim from my grandmother. In fact, my grandmother picked me up at the airport in Wichita Falls, Texas. And if she saw a black man standing on the sidewalk, she would reach across and slam the door lock, knocking me in the Adam’s apple going over my head, hit the door lock on the back door. She had an Oldsmobile ’88, she’s locking all four doors while going 35 miles an hour!

She sees a black guy on the sidewalk, she’s totally freaking out. “I just knew that girl at the counter was going to send me through a nigger town!” So I put that in a song. It never occurred to me that somebody might play that on the radio, but somebody did. Somebody in east Texas played it on purpose. The trouble happened in Dayton, Ohio because they didn’t preview the song. Just imagine you’re a black guy, you’re driving through Dayton rush hour and you hear some white guy on the radio saying “blah-blah-blah nigger town” and then you call the station while pissed off.

Then you get some white guy saying [in mock seriousness] “Well, in the context of the song, sir …” “No! You don’t put that word on the radio from a white guy! You don’t! You ought to know better than that!” If I could have written a different word and gotten the same vibe, I would have. But I couldn’t. It would not have been the same song. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, but I did. That’s the risk that you run.

You have an album called Childish Things and another one called Just Us Kids. Have you ever considered writing songs for kids?

I wrote one called “Walk Between the Raindrops” which was kind of advice for a kid at one point. But the stupid chopped-off ending on it, I don’t know why that was a good idea. But the lyrics are okay. It was on my second Sugar Hill record back in the ’90s. I kind of wrote that for a my own son. It’s geared more towards a teenager though he was not teenaged at that time. I was kind of thinking about him when I wrote it.

Splash image: Photo by © Shane McCauley from James McMurtry.com