Times Free Press Music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Austin, Texas-based singer/songwriter James McMurtry about the mantle of musical activism and treading the creative trail is father blazed before him.
Q: What was it like growing up in the home of a Pulitzer prize-winning author?
A: He wasn’t a Pulitzer prize-winner until I was way into my 20s. His books were barely read — his movies were known — but his book never sold more than 3,000 hard copies until Lonesome Dove, which was in 1986.
Q: Do you feel like having someone who was a writer around influenced or encouraged you in pursuing work in a creative field?
A: It certainly encouraged me. Most people are held back by the fact that there’s a perception in this country that only other people pursue artistic careers. We look up to them, but we don’t want our kids to do it. My father had already broken the mould. His father was a rancher, and he wasn’t going to fit in to that. He liked to read all the time, and eventually he got to where he liked to write.
Growing up, his day-to-day life was as a rare books seller. He ran an out-of-print bookstore in D.C. and commuted into town to do that. He also taught for a while, but he got really fed up with teaching in the late ’60s because everybody was in school to avoid going to Vietnam. He didn’t blame them for that at all, but he didn’t want to teach them because they didn’t want to be taught.
Q: I would imagine that doesn’t make for a very active audience. So he paved the way for you, then?
A: It made it OK to try anything, yeah.
Q: I’m sure every singer/songwriter gets this question at some point, but how big an influence was Bob Dylan on your music, if at all?
A: My dad was into Dylan. He would have to be an influence, because I listened to him from a very young age. Then, I went through my own Dylan stage later, so I’m sure he was an influence, but I couldn’t say how much. You listen to things, and they come out in your writing.
I think Kris Kristofferson was kind of more of an influence, I think. He was the first one anybody ever told me was a songwriter. When I first realized that was about the time the Me & Bobby McGee record came out. Kris had it very well structured. So did John Prine. I kind of try to emulate that, I suppose.
Q: You put a lot of effort into your songwriting. It something that seems to define your work more than almost anything.
A: That’s how I got started, that’s how I got deals — from the songwriting. It’s kind of how I was packaged from the beginning. I have to be good at it, or they’re not going to let me put records out (laughs).
Q: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
A: Yeah, it was called Talkin’ at the Texaco, which was on my first record, Too Long in the Wasteland. That came out on Columbia in 1989.
Q: Your music seems very grounded in everyday things. How big a role does the everyday play in your songwriting? Are you flooded with ideas from just walking down the street?
A: I use details. A song starts with a couple of lines of the melody, and if it’s cool enough to keep me up at night, I’ll finish it. Sometimes, I need details to cover it. You know, most songs are pure fiction, and you’ve got to make them look real, so you stuff some reality into them.
Q: Do you carry a notepad around with you in case of sudden inspiration or is it more structured than that?
A: Nah, I don’t keep a notepad. I have a pretty good memory, so when I’m trying to get a song finished, I can usually remember details that will help me. It’s all about rhyme and meter when it comes down to it.
Q: You say that all songs are fictionalized, but do you feel like songs are an effective platform for delivering a real message?
A: They certainly can, but you have to be careful because you can put people off with a message, even in a good song. I recently started into political songwriting in the last couple of years. I always avoided that before because I hated to see songwriters trying to make a point. It always put me off because they ended up writing sermons instead of songs.
I got lucky with We Can’t Make It Here because it ended up being a song. A lot of people got irate initially because when I put that out as a free download, Bush’s numbers were still pretty high, and a lot of people took it personally. That began to change over the next couple of years.
Q: I would imagine that, because you live in Texas, that most have received a pretty strong reaction locally, even though you’re in Austin, which is kind of an oasis of sanity.
A: Yeah, it is in Austin, but Austin is becoming more like Texas because there are so many Houstonites and Dallasites moving in here. When I first put out, We Can’t Make It Here, I put out an acoustic version because I couldn’t get the band together for a week or so, and it was right before the 2004 elections. This was the only statement I had because I didn’t feel like my vote counted since I tend to vote democratic and I live in Texas (laughs).
A: So, I ran down to KGSR radio because I knew the morning DJ would spin anything I brought him. He spun the song during the morning drive time, and I had nasty emails on my Web site before I got home (laughs). It didn’t take them any time.
Q: It seems like, as a writer myself, that any kind of reaction is welcome, even if it’s negative, because it means at least somebody was hearing the message. Is that how you took that?
A: Definitely. That song got more attention than expected. The power of the Internet was made apparent to me with that. I really hadn’t been paying that much attention to things online, and we put that out as a free download and got a lot more attention than anything I’d put on a CD in a long time. Word of mouth is a big thing now.
Q: You said you’ve recently gotten in to political songwriting, but why does it work for you as opposed to these other artists who just end up preaching?
A: It doesn’t always work for me (laughs). You just throw away the bad ones and start over. I only got into it because I got so mad at the situation. I thought I had to try something, even if it did screw up my art, you know?
Q: When you released God Bless America, was it a follow up to We Can’t Make It Here? Was that a release in response to the feedback you received, positive and negative alike, or was it something else entirely?
A: The focus is a little different with that. It’s a different kind of song, more like a political cartoon. If We Can’t Make It Here was the editorial, then God Bless America was the political cartoon. It’s got a more narrow focus on the profiteering going on in Iraq. A friend of mine was in the Army for 21-22 years, and he got dressed down by a Colonel for failing to be nice to KBR Contractors who were making a whole lot more than he was and who were harassing the soldiers.
There’s a lot of stuff we’re not really looking at in this war, and I just try to look at it. I’m can’t change people’s minds. All I can do is remind them that it’s going on.
Q: To move back to Austin for just a second, it seems like everyone I talk to from there speaks really highly of it as a real music town, but it sounds like that may be changing. Is Austin still a music town?
A: Yeah, it is. There’s a lot of clubs here that have music nightly, and a surprising amount of it is pretty good. I just want the music to keep going, but it may not after awhile because they’re building so many condos and the real estate is going through the roof and the rent’s going through the roof. I don’t know if they’ll have a music town in a few years. Musicians can’t afford to live in a place like that — they’ll move to Raleigh or something. But it has been a good music town since the 70s.
Q: Why did you move back to Texas to begin with? You were living in Virginia for awhile, right?
A: I moved back in 1984, after the last time I dropped out of school. I wound up in San Antonio, where a friend of mine was renovating a bar, and I just sort of hung out. I moved to Austin in 1989 because my fiancee was here in graduate school. About that time, I had a record deal, and it was a pretty good place to find a band.
Q: It seems like you ended up in just the right place, even if it is changing now.
A: It’s always been changing. Everyone’s always griping about how much better it used to be, but it seems to be accelerating right now. The downtown skyline is unrecognizable from what it was just a few years ago. They’re throwing stuff up so fast, and it’s high-dollar stuff, too — downtown condos and $1 million chunks of concrete. They just started selling this town. They found out they could, so they did.
Q: You worked a lot of other jobs before settling into songwriting as a career. You list house painting and bartending as a couple.
A: Those are generally things musicians do until they figure things out. Either you do that, or you go into retail. Retail will kill you — not many people escape from that (laughs).
Q: How important is that kind of experience to a singer/songwriter? Do is it help having a wider pool of experience to draw from?
A: (laughs) I don’t think it has anything to do with anything. It’s all about learning how to write verse and playing guitar. If I wrote from my life experience, it would be something nobody would want to hear. You’ve got to be able to invent. It’s creative. You’re supposed to create; that’s what you do.
Q: Your son has played with you on one of your later albums, right?
A: Yeah, he played on the last record (Childish Things, 2005), and we’ve got a new one coming out in April called Just Us Kids that he plays on.
Q: How does that make you feel? It must be nice to know that the family tradition your father started of creative pursuits is being carried on.
A: Yeah, I think he may take it further. He’s looking at going to school to be a composer. He can actually write. He’s young — he’s 17 — and I don’t know what he’ll end up doing, but that’s what he wants to do now.
Q: Tell me a little about Just Us Kids.
A: It’ll be out April 15. Our first recording session for it was August a year ago, so it’s been a year and a half or so.
Q: Did you have any kind of goal with this? Is it a continuation of the political writing you started in 2004?
A: It’s got a little more political stuff than the was on the one before, but it’s kind of unsettling that now, I’m getting marketed as a political songwriter. That’s one of the things I do, and politics needs to be talked about, but if you’re going to talk about my art, it’s not all I do. The majority of the songs on this record are not political, but there are several that are definitely in-your-face.
The goal is always to stay in business and make enough money to make another record. We put out records so we get written about when we go on tour so people go to our shows. It’s kind of a symbiotic thing.
Q: Will you play any of the material off that album when you come here?
A: Yeah, there are a couple we’ve been playing for a while, and we might work up a couple more.