Americana Highways had the honor of talking to James McMurtry during his recent tour. When we got him on the phone, he was finishing up breakfast with the band in a diner, and we got to talking amidst the clatter of dishes until he stepped outside.
AH: The holiday season is upon us, is this still good fodder for songwriting material?
JM: (laughs) I’ve done that, but it’s actually not really any more inspirational than anything else. There’s inspiration everywhere.
AH: You recently released a single, “State of the Union,” which is online only. That song really hits the nail on the head politically, with the one brother so angry at the seemingly elitist other brother in his cardigan sweater.
JM: Politics have evolved into identity. Nobody’s talking about issues anymore, it’s become about which side you’re on and how you identify yourself. I’ve got a lot of right-wing cousins, and I notice they say the word “I” a lot. They’ll say “I’m a gun-toting country boy” or “I’m a conservative,” and they think they are conservatives. Maybe some of them have heard of William S. Buckley. (laughs) But being conservative doesn’t mean the same thing anymore as it used to; now it just means you’re wearing the MAGA hat.
A lot of rural white Americans were raised to believe they were supposed to inherit a certain status, and to get to continue to make the rules. And even the mere notion that a black man or a Hispanic or middle Eastern person, or anybody else, might possibly have a chance in their world, flips them out. It makes them think something is being taken from them. So they feel slighted and they’re looking for a savior. And they’ll take anybody, and they think Trump is their savior. I ran into some who thought that savior was going to be George Bush. I had a discussion with a lady from Atlanta one time who said, “Well there are two people from Texas I already love, my husband and George Bush.” I asked why does she love George Bush? I was asking her for a rational argument. She said: “He makes me feel safer.” That’s an emotional argument. Personally, I don’t “feel” safer because when I drive through a port city I see shipping containers stacked up higher than I can throw a rock over, and I know that Homeland Security has enough money to inspect about 4% of those containers, and the next week I’ll see them rolling through Kansas all with the same Chinese writing on them, any one of which could have a dirty bomb in it. George Bush wouldn’t have known, nobody knows. That’s a problem that needs a solution, and not an emotional one.
But it’s all emotion and this sense that “this guy’s with ‘us.” It’s an “us” vs. “them.” And they believe Trump is paying attention to their slighted white needs.
AH: Is there any solution to repair this?
JM: If Democrats would get to the polls they’d bury the Republicans. The last time we saw the Democratic electorate wake up was in Obama’s first election, although of course there’s gerrymandering to contend with. But with Democrats, we can get back to dealing with actual issues, and their complicated realities. Trump doesn’t even really care about issues like Roe vs Wade, that’s just bait to keep certain people in line behind their fears.
AH: Can music reach people and bridge the divide?
JM: I have right wing fans but it doesn’t seem to change them much. They like the characters, they like the groove, but it’s not changing any of their minds. They were into my music before the polarization fully took hold. I have right wing characters in some of my songs and some people hear them and think “I’m one of them,” without grasping what else is being said.
AH: There are layers of meaning in your songs, sometimes people maybe don’t hear all the layers on first listen. In your recent release, there’s the powerful song “Copper Canteen.” It paints a picture, poetically, that’s so resigned. It’s about people with knee-jerk reactionary, non-reflective thought patterns. The protagonist is really annoyed with his wife and, among other things, threatens to cheat. At first I was going to ask whether the characters were ever in love? But then there’s this part where the couple is in bed and her breathing is soothing his worries.
JM: There’s hope and validation in that song because despite their differences, they’re still together. They seem to respect each other. And he’s a small town pup. We don’t know how serious his threat of cheating really is. He could be serious, but he might not be.
AH: In “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” the character is in this driving frenzy with this powerful heartbeat bass line, what inspired that one?
JM: That song started with an actual rattle in my dashboard. I was driving out to a hunting camp and I just started playing with words.
AH: “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” is also a monster guitar song, a rock song with banjo, but even the banjo just adds to the rock vibe.
JM: Danny Barnes is a pretty rock ‘n roll banjo player, and rock ‘n roll is pretty much all I do.
AH: “You Got To Me” is a deeply poignant song. She doesn’t even maybe know that she got to him. How often do we, as humans, just go on living with regrets?
JM: I think the older you get the more you remember. And if you’ve got any time to question that can drive you crazy, going back and questioning why did I do this thirty years ago.
AH: What’s your writing process?
JM: Generally, I get two lines and a melody. And if it’s cool enough to keep me up at night I’ll keep picking at it and then the next thing I want to figure out about the lines is, who said ‘em? I listen and I think what character would’ve said that. And I try to envision the character. And then I can work backward. Once you get the character you can get the story. And then you can break it into a verse-chorus structure. Then you might get a song out of it.
AH: Do you have a regular writing routine?
JM: No I really don’t. On this last record, for example, that last song you just mentioned “You Got To Me,” that one took about 25 years. You notice there are details in there, like a paperboy, which you don’t see anymore, and they don’t have hard subway tokens. So, it’s kind of dated. But then at the other end of the spectrum, are songs like “I Ain’t Got A Place,” which is the only song I ever wrote in fifteen minutes. That was a stream-of-consciousness one. I had heard about that happening to other people, but for that song, it was the first time it ever happened to me.
AH: That the song again shows people avoiding the hard truths that come with reflection, with its line “lookin’ in just brings me down”
JM: Yeah, it led there because I was playing with opposites. Up down, out in.
AH: What inspired the song “South Dakota?” with its line “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”
JM: That’s about the blizzard of 2013; they had an early blizzard up there that killed a lot of cattle. They had had grass while the Texas ranchers were going under because they had had no grass, and an incredible drought for several years. So the Texas ranchers had liquidated their herds cheap, and the people in the Northlands bought them up, but the cattle were killed in the blizzard. They hadn’t had a chance to grow winter coats.
And at the same time, a lot of times in those rural towns there’ll be a banner hanging over the street with something like “Welcome Home PFC so-and–so“ and I thought what happens to these people when they go into the armed services because there are no jobs where they live, and then it’s bad enough in combat and then they get home and they’re broke.
AH: Earlier this year you toured with Jason Isbell. What’s your sense of the state of independent musicians right now?
JM: There’s no uniform state. You’ve got guys like me who are still driving around in vans just like we’ve been doing for the last 30 years. And then you’ve got guys like Isbell who have 3 buses and a truck. And it has to do with the individual.
Jason and I used to tour together when he was still in the van. And I’ve watched him, he’s found something, he’s found a way to really get people. I’ve watched him do it, there’s some frequency in his voice that he can hit. I can’t tell what he’s singing from backstage because they don’t have any monitor speakers for his show anymore, he has in-ear monitors. So he can hear himself sing but I can’t, all I can hear is the echo from out of the house — he’s playing those halls that are really kind of boomy. And if you can shut out a lot of that house sound with the in-ear system you can stay in time a lot better. So I won’t know what words he’s singing but I can hear that frequency, it’s kind of a high-mid thing, and suddenly, everybody is on their feet.
Maybe it’s the way he holds his head when he does that or something (laughs). If I could figure out something like that maybe it’d help me.
[For our review of a show on that tour, click here: Show Review: James McMurtry and Jason Isbell Rock Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House with Solemnity and Playful Celebration.]
AH: But you do that too.
JM: Well, no, not the way he does. Playing those big theatres is a lot different from playing clubs. The way we’d do it for our sets is we’d get real quiet, so for the first two songs people were still getting to their seats and we’d play to some of that racket. But then after that, people’d start paying attention. It’s interesting how in those big rooms you can really boil it down to nothing, and sometimes the people will quiet down along with you.
AH: Are you involved in a new activity or hobby lately?
JM: I do need something. My old hobbies are kind of evaporating. I used to hunt and fish a lot but a lot of us get a certain age, and I no longer have the psychological need to kill things. I don’t even really want to bother the fish, I used to bow fish or I’d jug fish for catfish. I’d go out after gar fish with a bow and arrow, but the problem with that is there’s no catch and release option. You shoot about twenty feet and you try to get them on the surface with their back sticking out and there’s a barb, you have to aim ahead of the fish too because they’re moving. But anyway if you lose the arrow in a fish you better be prepared to gut it and eat it. I haven’t done that in awhile. I think what I’m gonna do, since I don’t care that much about catching fish anymore, I may take up fly fishing because that’s the best way in the world to not catch fish. You can just sit there all day. (laughs)
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
JM: We’re going to make a record in the early part of next year, and will get it out in the summer.
We can’t wait! Check for tour dates here: http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/ See two of our earlier show reviews of James McMurtry here: Show Review: James McMurtry Plays Songs That Seem Handed Down Through the Generations in Austin’s Continental Club and here: Show Review: “J.M.²”, the James McMurtry and John Moreland tour, Delighted Fans in Virginia on Monday Night