Terms of Engagement
Deconstructing James McMurtry in five easy steps
There's fear and loathing in Crawford, Texas. You can see it in the brake lights of James McMurtry's Ford truck. Even in more civil times, before this sleepy farm town became home to the president and ground zero for protest of the war in Iraq, the back roads south of the city's center weren't easy to navigate. They're dusty and treacherously unpaved, without a street sign or speed limit marker in sight. To stop or not to stop? That's the question, at a forced left turn, where a series of temporary stop signs suggests one thing and a Texas state trooper, blocking a gate that's presumably the back entrance to President Bush's ranch, suggests another. McMurtry splits the difference and rides the brake, not quite stopping, and definitely not ignoring the police presence.
"It seemed weird to stop," admits McMurtry, who's now made the two-hour drive from his home in Austin to Crawford three times. "If I didn't stop would they have chased me down? I didn't know what to do. It's Crawford. There's potential for a tense situation up there."
There's also the potential for a standing ovation if you're playing the right song and McMurtry has that song. Onstage at Camp Casey, the Crawford vigil organized by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq, McMurtry ends a 30-minute performance with the song that earned him his invitation to play, "We Can't Make It Here." Clocking in at just under eight minutes, it's an alternate state-of-the-union, a scholarly commentary on the economy, the war, and arrogant leadership. "Stark and wrenchingly direct, this may be the best American protest songs since [Bob Dylan's] 'Masters of War,'" wrote author Stephen King, who downloaded the song from McMurtry's Web site, where it was hastily posted a week before the 2004 presidential election.
From a stage literally 60 feet from the gated front entrance to Bush's ranch, McMurtry busted out the song's money shot: "Get out of that limo and look us in the eye. Call us on the cell phone, tell us all why." For a crowd gathered expressly to lobby the president to a sit-down with a grieving mother, a line written close to a year ago couldn't have been more prescient. In return, the audience offers McMurtry serious applause and scattered tears.
"I like that people are connecting to it," says McMurtry, who's put a new version of the song at the center of his new album, Childish Things. "But not why. They're identifying because they're in bad shape. I got a letter the other day from someone in North Carolina. The factory closed, and now Wal-Mart's paying them half with no benefits. I didn't make this stuff up, it's out there.
"And Cindy Sheenan's a fanatic? No. She's a mother that lost a son. Around election time, there was a saying going around: 'Silence is complicity.' It started to make sense to me. I didn't want to be silent or complicit anymore. Take a look around. We can't afford to be."
Austin Chronicle: Your signature, songs sung in character, seems more like a literary device than a songwriter's device.
James McMurtry: It's easier for me. It's always how I start songs. If I had to write everything from my own personal voice I wouldn't be writing much. I suppose I have a voice, but how many songs can you write from it?
AC: So which comes first, the character or the idea for a song?
JM: I don't specifically set out to write characters. They come out of the lines I hear. I hear a line and think, "Who's singing that? Who's telling me that? What kind of person would say that?" Sometimes they're characters that don't necessarily reflect my own opinion. A cool rhyme might not reflect the original idea. Then you have to be okay with that line coming out of your mouth for years on end. People are going to blame you if they don't like it.
AC: With some of your characters, that's not an unlikely outcome.
JM: Early on, I wrote a song called "Safe Side" for the Candyland record. It's from the point of view of a tight-assed Anglo tourist going across the border. I softened the last verse because it got pretty out there. Even so, Tish Hinojosa told me, "I got friends in the valley that want to know what the hell you mean." Damn. I don't mean anything, I'm just trying to write a song here.
AC: Sometimes those songs wind up seven or eight minutes long. Two songs you're best associated with, "Choctaw Bingo" and now "We Can't Make It Here," are long.
JM: John Mellencamp told me early on to get the chorus quick and not make it too long. Like it was law, except what about a song like "Like a Rolling Stone"? It's a million years long and has no chorus. Stephen King owns a radio station in Maine. They played "Choctaw Bingo," and it was their most requested song of 2004. It's ironic radio worries so much. Radio doesn't want a song that long because there's only so many minutes to broadcast between commercials. I think listeners care less.
AC: Sometimes rules just don't apply.
JM: Or maybe they still do. But I'm 43 years old. I don't care so much anymore.
Aside from "We Can't Make It Here," Childish Things isn't overtly political. "It's about people, not politics," says McMurtry of the album. That's also true of the songwriter's first six albums. From his Mellencamp-produced debut, 1989's Too Long in the Wasteland, to the pair of discs McMurtry cut post-Columbia for Sugar Hill, it's the defeated and the idealists, the cranky and struggling, that take front and center. Like his father, novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment), James' early work also uses small towns as a microcosm of America. "You can get your mind around a small town," notes the singer.
While his tales of life across what he calls "Levelland" often sounded like Tom Waits gargling a bookcase full of sociology textbooks, McMurtry says he's always been careful to focus on the effect of geography on the people, not their politics. In 1997, he told this paper that politically driven songwriting is for "hippies on a soapbox trying to save the world. I don't think that's what songs are for."
Call it a flip-flop or a splash of enlightenment, but all that changed with the 2000 election. McMurtry says he believes the election wasn't won by popular vote, but by voter intimidation and outright fraud at the polls. While he was once a card-carrying member of both the NRA and ACLU, the avid outdoorsman and gun-owner has left the NRA behind. "It became clear to me after a while that my money wasn't going to supporting my gun rights, but instead towards scaring gun owners into voting Republican."
Before long, McMurtry began utilizing the best pulpit he had, the stage. On last year's Live in Aught-Three, there's a clip of a stage rap titled "Max's Theorem." What begins with an explanation that "Levelland" was written with the unabashedly communist Texas novelist Max Crawford in mind expands into a Bush-baiting rant on the president's pronunciation of "nuclear."
"I knew it's the song all the Bush people were coming to hear," McMurtry says of the tune Robert Earl Keen covered in 1997. "So one time I did it in Plano and a woman got really mad. She said, 'Don't slam Bush.' I told her I would if I wanted to. She came back a little later with a sign that said 'Keep Politics out of Music.' They tried to run her off. I said, 'No, she can stay if she wants to.' Then some girl kind of playfully tried to snatch the sign away, and she turned around and got the girl in a headlock. Security threw both of 'em out. It was our first catfight in front of the stage. Ever.
"But I thought it was odd: 'Keep Politics Out of Music'? I guess that's okay if you don't listen to Woody Guthrie and John Lennon. Or Steve Earle."
McMurtry listens to Steve Earle. In fact, he credit's Earle's 2004 album, The Revolution Starts Now, with his final move toward outright politicization. When McMurtry heard Earle had made an entire political album for release before the election, McMurtry thought he might be able to get at least one song done. "We Can't Make It Here" was posted online, and within weeks it earned McMurtry more press than he'd seen since leaving Columbia Records a decade earlier. In July, McMurtry performed the song in Irving, Texas, for a meeting of the Veterans for Peace. In the crowd were Cindy Sheehan and Mike Hoffman, a 25-year-old veteran that co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"Mike Hoffman lived every aspect of my song," says McMurtry, who become one of Camp Casey's first visitors when he drove up to Crawford to donate a camcorder Sheehan's protesters needed to monitor police activity. "He was from Allentown. The major industry was Bethlehem steel and Mack Truck. By the time he got out of high school both of them were cutting back and there were no jobs. So he rolled the dice and joined the Marines. He figured he could get out before the next war. He had two days left, literally, when he was told they were all going to Iraq.
"He survived that, and when he got home Bethlehem declared bankruptcy. His father had worked for them his whole life and had a host of health problems from breathing that stuff. Now Bethlehem's folded up and he's got no benefits. And that's the song."
At Camp Casey in August, McMurtry met more veterans with similar stories. Steve Earle was there, too; before he played his own hour set of protest songs, he watched McMurtry's every song from side-stage, flashing an ear-to-ear grin. Others have been less pleased by McMurtry's foray into politics, writing McMurtry nasty e-mails suggesting they were fans before he brought politics into music.
"I'm not particularly surprised by the hate mail," shrugs McMurtry. "I was hoping to piss people off bad enough that they'd buy [the album] to run over them in trucks. People had to buy every one of those Dixie Chicks records they ran over. I thought about pitching it to Wal-Mart. They could sell them with a hammer and let people take them straight to the crushing booth.
"But seriously, people are hurting out there. There are people doing way worse then they were in 2000 and they're still pro-Bush because they don't want to look at it. I guess it's just much easier not to look."
AC: How much of what you do is a reaction to being the son of a famous novelist? You honor him by writing, but not in the same way he does.
JM: I tried to write like he did for a while. I don't take to prose. It requires a different attention span. Every so often I'll scribble a page of prose, but I don't really know what to do with it. I think it's because I don't read. I'd like to be better read. But, I don't know, I'd like to do the work to get there. Larry is an avid reader. Always was. I didn't read so much. I listened. And a lot of people claim there's some kind of genetic connection. I'd have to question that because nobody ever said that about him. There's no writers in his background.
AC: In your subjects and delivery, it's not hard to see you're your father's son.
JM: Lyrically, it's weird. On my first tour somebody asked me if Larry helped me write songs. It's ridiculous, because he can't carry a tune. It's not that he doesn't like music. He just can't. He said he tried to write poetry once, but that he didn't have the mental muscle for verse. Like I said, verse and prose are two entirely different things.
AC: Like your father, you write so much about geography. You spent much of your childhood on the move, from Texas to Virginia and back. As an adult you've lived everywhere from Arizona to Alaska.
JM: Moving around gave me perspective. I was generally on the outside looking in. You pick up on things that people who've lived there all their lives might not notice anymore. A friend of my aunt's told me a story about us riding around when I was 3 years old. I looked out the window and said, "Wow, look at the sunset." They said they'd never noticed it before. To me that's the best part of North Texas. The ground is not that pretty, but the sky is amazing. How they could miss it is beyond me.
AC: Outsiders aren't always the happiest people in the crowd. Are a lot of your characters lonely and unhappy because you were?
JM: No. They were unhappy because they were. If you drive around a lot and look through the windshield, you don't see a whole lot of people. Mostly you see beat-down unhappy people far more beat-down and unhappy than I hope to ever be and certainly more than I've ever been. I can't imagine the misery of some of these people. I see it on their faces, and I can't fathom it. I just can't.
Six days after his appearance at Camp Casey, McMurtry is sitting at the bar of the new Enoteca Vespaio deconstructing what went wrong with his set. From the crowd, it didn't look like there was much to critique. "Choctaw Bingo" and "We Can't Make It Here" killed. The gig also marked the first time McMurtry shared a stage with his sax-playing 14-year-old, Curtis. Only "Rachel's Song," McMurtry's disturbing tale of a hard drinking single mother from 1995's Where'd You Hide the Body seemed flat. Don't think its author didn't notice.
"My son and Steve [Earle] play to a crowd; I tend to play at a crowd," he offers. "I have to coax myself into actually trying to connect. It's the mistake I made during 'Rachel's Song.' I played at them. Maybe if I'd have figured out how to play to them they might not have fallen asleep like they did."
That McMurtry is taking notes on his sets, even a low-pressure, unpaid gig like the one at Camp Casey, marks the beginning of a new stage in his career. Buoyed by the critical success of last year's live album and the steadily growing crowds for his weekly residency at the Continental Club, McMurtry has come to believe he could be the rare singer-songwriter with a live show as his best calling card if only he focused less on the music and more on the audience.
"It sounds simple, but you have to use the crowd's energy if you really hope to connect," he explains. "That's something that doesn't come easy for me. I've had to learn it. And relearn it. I'll forget it and say, 'Next week I've got to look at them more.' Eye contact is a big deal, but I'm kind of standoffish by nature."
Standoffish may be an understatement. Google James McMurtry, and two things stand out: how relatively little has been written about him and how often the stories that are there describe him as either "aloof" or "detached." The few articles where he opens up and offers more than a monosyllabic quote or three are generally followed by the writer's statement of surprise. That's been the story all along; his hand-torn sleeveless T-shirts and gimme caps suggest someone that would be happier at a truck stop or a deer hunt than the Cactus Cafe or a photo shoot. And yet, if the early response to "We Can't Make It Here" is any indication, Childish Things could wind up one of the most successful albums of McMurtry's career. Even if that happens, he says he'll still play his cards close to his vest. Not just for privacy's sake but for the sake of the songs.
"Aloof? Lazy? I've heard it all before. When you're out there and onstage, you can't expect to have total control of your image," reasons McMurtry. "That's not even the point. It's like a song. A song is as much about the listener as it is the writer. What's a song about? Well, what's the song about to you? I guess I just don't want people to have too much information about me. It's not necessary. Anybody that cares enough is going to have more fun making it up anyway. What's it do to the music? The music is the music no matter who I wind up being."