Until 2004, singer-songwriter James McMurtry was known mainly as a highly-respected chronicler of hard-bitten heartland characters living hardscrabble lives on the fringes. Then he released the single “We Can’t Make It Here,” a scorching indictment of the Bush administration and the power elite, earning the unassuming Texan increased fame and a newfound “unabashed activist” label.
Four years later, the man novelist Stephen King has called “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation” is back with a new album (Just Us Kids, Lightning Rod Records) that finds him skewering Bush and company with even more fervor but with the same eloquent terseness. We caught up with McMurtry after a recent rehearsal as he and his band, The Heartless Bastards, prepared to head east on their latest tour. He shared his thoughts on the process of songwriting, the drudgery of touring and the reason why Leonard Cohen must die.
We know you’re originally from Fort Worth, Texas, but you now live in the Austin, right?
Yeah, I was born in Fort Worth, but I spent very little time there. I moved when I was about seven years old.
Are you a local celebrity there? Do you get recognized a lot?
Yeah, it’s become so in recent years.
How do you feel about that?
Well, I guess it means I’m doing my job.
Before we get to the new album, we’re required by law to ask you at least one question about your father (Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner Larry McMurtry). Are you able to enjoy and appreciate each other’s work?
Yeah, definitely. I grew up with him. My folks divorced when I was about seven. We all wound up in Virginia in different parts of the state. I lived with my dad, so I learned to get along with him pretty good.
When it comes to your songwriting, you said that you’re not so much an artist as a mythbreaker. Could you explain that?
I don’t remember saying that, but it is something I try to do. I was always in sort of a quandary when I did those Farm Aid shows because what I never hear anybody writing about is just how much drudgery there is involved in farming. I tend to look at the dark cloud behind the silver lining. Farmwork involves hours and hours of hard work and lots of debt and that sort of thing.
When it comes to your actual songwriting process, how do you do it? Do you set aside some time and say, “Okay, I have to start writing some songs” or do you just get hit with an idea?
I have a scrap pile that I work from. If I hear a line in my head that I like, I try to get it on the hard disk somewhere so I don’t lose it. Then when it comes time to make a record, I usually book some recording time, then I have a deadline to finish these things, and whichever songs get finished are the ones that get on the record.
The new album, Just Us Kids, might be your most ambitious work musically. The music is quite textured and complex. Do you chalk that up to good producing?
Well, I try things and some of them work.
You say this isn’t a political album, but the political criticism you level seems even more pointed and direct than on Childish Things. Has your anger with this current administration increased in the past few years?
I don’t know. I don’t remember how mad I was [in 2004]. I’m pretty mad now, but I can’t lay it all on them because we let that happen. We let them get in power.
This album will probably expand the use of the “activist” label that we so often see attached to your name these days. How comfortable are you with that label?
It’s okay. I just think more people need to be activists in some form or another. We got in the mess we’re in now because not enough of us were activists, myself included. I stayed out of the parade. I thought the political scene within the states was gonna stay within the realm of normalcy and that Ronald Reagan was as crazy as it was ever gonna get. I never thought I’d miss that guy.
You got some hate mail in response to your 2004 hit “We Can’t Make It Here.” Are you ready for more of that with this album, or do you think that kind of reaction is pretty much played out?
Oh no, I’m getting more of that now.
Yeah. Part of it is that a lot of people misinterpret “Cheney’s Toy.” They seem to think that I’m saying that the soldier is Cheney’s toy. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying Bush is Cheney’s toy.
You seem to make that pretty clear in the song.
Well, I thought I left enough clues in there, like “stay the course” and “daddy’s boy” and “bring ‘em on.” A lot of people just don’t read the newspaper. Even the lyric “You’re the man.” That was reported early on that that’s what Cheney tells Bush to keep his ego inflated. “You’re the man,” you know? He’s not at all. He’s just the salesman. These are Cheney’s policies Bush is selling. They’re not his.
Is it even tougher having this type of political stance while living in Texas?
It’s not tough living in Austin at all. Austin’s a little blue dot in a sea of red. But we got a lot of people moving in from Dallas and Houston, so it’s becoming more like the rest of Texas. But it’s still enough of a liberal enclave that you don’t really feel it here.
So you won’t be needing to move to any East Coast city any time soon?
I don’t think so. It’d have to be somewhere in the middle [of the country]. It’s a lot easier to tour from the middle.
Let’s get back to the new album. How do you get the likes of Ian McLagan and pat mAcdonald to play for you?
You call ‘em. Mac lives right outside of town here. I see him around town all the time. Pat opened a couple of shows for us and we just really liked him. I had his number so we called him. It turned out he still had a storage locker left over here from the “Timbuk3″ days, and he came down to empty it out, so while he was here we corralled him into playing on the record.
In two different song titles on your new album, you wish death upon pat mAcdonald and Leonard Cohen. So please tell us, why must they die?
“You’d a’ Thought” was one of the first songs we recorded, and it reminded me of Leonard Cohen a bit. I was writing the song while I was supposed to be recording it, so everybody was sitting around waiting on me to come in, and finally I got there and I said, “Well, if it wasn’t for Leonard Cohen, you wouldn’t have had to wait so long.” So that became the running joke. And “God Bless America” was done in pat mAcdonald’s tuning. He does this Drop C tuning that’s really cool. So we put “(Pat mAcdonald must die)” on that one. There were three or four other “must dies” that didn’t make it onto the album.
There’s no chance of making Ian McLagan a permanent Heartless Bastard, is there?
No, he’s got his own record right now that’s coming out soon, so he’s got a full plate right now.
Are you pushing any particular song or songs for radio play?
Yeah. “Just Us Kids” is a single and it’s already number one on the Americana format. R&R has a chart for Americana and we’ve been number one there for the last two weeks. Since the record isn’t even out yet, we’re doing all right with radio.
You have a certain degree of fame, critics love your work, you’ve got a sizable group of hardcore fans, other musicians respect your music, but are you ever tempted to sacrifice some artistic integrity and try to write some standard issue, corporate country album with a couple of hits with catchy hooks, just to make that huge financial score?
I used to be tempted to do that and I even tried. In the 80’s I had some friends in Nashville that I tried to co-write with for exactly that, but it just never worked. I didn’t have whatever you need to get that done.
That’s not something that just anyone can do, but we thought you might be able to figure out a way.
Yeah, I mean, if I could pitch a song to one of those hats and make a zillion dollars, I’d do it.
Many of your songs don’t follow the formulaic verse-chorus-bridge template. Have you ever gotten pressure from one of your labels to write in that style?
I’ve never gotten much pressure. In the Columbia days I’d get pressure from managers sometimes to try to write a hit, because that’s what you really needed. But on independent labels, I’ve sold enough records to suit ‘em, so they haven’t griped. It’s worked out for me because you get a better royalty rate with those guys. You don’t have to sell quite so many records to make a living.
You’re headed out on tour in mid-April. How do you feel about getting ready to go out on the road again? Are you excited, nervous or do you just want to slit your wrists at the thought of touring again?
It’s exciting, but I’ve been most of the places that we’re going, so I see it as a job, as well as an adventure.
What kind of support will you be getting from your label on this tour? Will you still be loading up your own gear after the show?
Oh yeah, definitely. Indie labels just don’t have the money to pay. You’re not going to get tour support in the traditional major label sense, because they don’t have it. And even if they did have it, you’d have to pay it back. So I’d just as soon load my own gear. If I have to get a label to pay somebody else to do it, then that’s a few more dollars I have to pay back before I get anything in my account.
Will anybody be handling the McLagan’s piano parts and mAcdonald’s harmonica parts in the live shows?
No, we restructured the songs for a trio.
Any chance of seeing your son Curtis playing with you at any shows?
No, he’s doing his own thing. He doesn’t tour. He prefers to make money, so he gets a job in the summer.
When you’re on the road and you have some down time in a big city, how do you kill the time?
Well, there really isn’t any down time. If you get a day off, you sleep. It’s really pretty hectic. I mean, guys that have buses, they might have down time because they drive after shows. They got a driver, so they can sleep on the bus after the show. With us, we’re in a van, and I don’t like to drive after a show. I prefer to get up in the morning and drive. You get up early and drive 300 miles, then you might have an in-store performance or a radio appearance to play. You almost always have something to do.
On a good day you don’t have any of that. You go to the hotel at check-in time, you go to your room, you have a glass of wine, then you go to sound check. Then you go eat, then play the show, then get up the next day and repeat the same process.
So that’s the glamour of touring, huh?
Yeah, there’s not a lot of down time. There’s one stretch on this tour where we play 15 days straight. That’s gonna be kind of tricky. You gotta be careful because you can’t drink too much. You don’t want to play hungover. I’d rather play drunk.
What’s the setlist looking like for this tour?
We’re thinking of trying to put the whole record together in sequence, then put in some other stuff in the second hour. I don’t know if that’ll work out.
When people have yelled out requests at your shows, you have answered by saying, “He knows what he wants to hear, but he doesn’t know shit about putting together a setlist.”
(Laughs.) I stole that from David Bromberg. But now I modify it. Now I say, “Yeah, you know what you wanna hear, but you don’t know what you’re gonna hear.” That pretty much says it.
Do you ever think your live audiences are a little too reverential at times?
Oh, sure! There are some places where it’s still like that.
At times, you are rocking out and people are just standing around.
Yeah, like they’re waiting around for the literary masterpiece.
How do you feel about where you are career-wise right now?
Better than I did six year ago. It seemed like it was really going nowhere and my agent was really having to pull teeth to get gigs. Fortunately, he hung in there and now he’s pretty jazzed up because we’ve turned a corner. So there are some prospects now. I got a European licensing deal for this record. You gotta have a licensing deal for every market because they’re all different. Maybe we can get over there and make some Euros this time.
In 1989, you appeared as Jimmy Rainey in Lonesome Dove. Any chance we’ll ever see you in another movie?
If the part comes along and somebody wants me, I’d love to get some Screen Actors’ Guild … they’ve got some really good health insurance. That’d be cool.
If they made the James McMurtry biopic today, who would play you?
I don’t have any idea. I’m not old enough to worry about that yet. And I’m not big enough to worry about that either.
What would you do if you could no longer be a musician?
Well, I’m outta luck now because the trucking industry is going down. I would have figured I
could always drive. That’s pretty much what we do anyway.
Tell us something about James McMurtry that most people, especially your fans, might not know about you and that might surprise them?
(Pause.) No, I don’t really wanna tell you anything about that!
Interviewed by S.R.C., April 2008. Just Us Kids was released on April 15. To hear several free tracks from this album, visit James McMurtry’s MySpace page. Tour information can be found at JamesMcMurtry.com.