IF YOU GO
What: James McMurtry with Jonny Burke
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 1
Where: Rhythm & Brews, 221 Market St.
Venue website: www.rhythm-brews.com
When he was growing up, there was every chance that James McMurtry's career could have been swallowed up in the shadow of his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lonesome Dove" author Larry McMurtry.
Telling stories was in his blood, but he tapped into that legacy through songwriting. Since his recording debut in the late '80s, he has traveled the country penning and singing hard-edged, narrative-driven Americana music.
About a quarter-century later, McMurtry says following his father's path was never even a temptation.
"Prose? Nah, prose is a chore for me," he explains. "I don't really think of [my work] as literary; it's more of a musical pursuit."
McMurtry's father gave him his first guitar at age 7, but it was his mother, an English professor, who taught him his first chords when the family relocated to Virginia from Texas.
He said he began writing verses in high school but didn't manage to consistently finish any until his early 20s while attending the University of Arizona. McMurtry's first break as a recording artist came when he submitted a demo tape to John Mellencamp, who was impressed with the material it contained and co-produced his first album, "Too Long in the Wasteland."
Wednesday, McMurtry will return to Chattanooga to perform at Rhythm & Brews alongside his backing trio, The Heartless Bastards, including drummer Darren Hess, bassist Cornbread and guitarist John Holt.
With his laid-back, gruff vocals reminiscent of artists such as Steve Earle, McMurtry's singing often strays into a sparsely adorned, spoken-word approach as he relates stories of hardscrabble, downtrodden and desperate characters.
McMurtry says keeping his own interest is the key to a song surviving his composing process. The next step is making the audience believe in it, too, which he admits can be even trickier but still achievable.
The key is thinking beyond the stage, he says.
"You can't just play at them; you have to play to them or with them," McMurtry says. "Wherever you're playing, the room is the instrument; it's not the guitar. You use any energy you can find."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Texas-based folk singer/songwriter James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, about how John Mellecamp is like Vince Lombardi and where his songs come from.
CP: How has this year treated you so far?
JM: It's been great, so far. I'm still working. I'm just going down the road. Right now, I'm standing outside a grocery store outside LaFayette, La., where they have the best Louisiana cracklin in the world. I don't know. We'll see. My producer, C.C. Adcock, told me that.
CP: What are your plans for the summer?
JM: We're working pretty steady the rest of this month. I'll be off a little bit in May. My son is graduating college, so I blocked out a couple of weeks. Then, we're back on in June and July. I hope to get in the studio in August some time.
CP: Where is graduating from?
JM: He's graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y. He majored in music comp. He says that it's the degree that will qualify him to host at the pizza joint where he hosted when he was 16. [Laughs.]
CP: The last time we spoke, you talked about how your dad stepped out of the footsteps of your grandfather, and you didn't follow the same path as your dad. How does it feel to see your son actually following more or less the same path as you?
JM: Well, I don't know. He's a more really talented songwriter and more knowledgeable about it than I am. He can read and score and do all that stuff. Oh yeah, I'm definitely proud of him. I don't know if I would recommend it as a career path, but that's his busines.
CP: You first picked up the guitar at a pretty young age. Walk me through what happened.
JM: My dad brought me a guitar when I was three or four. It was a kid guitar he brought back from California. I'm not sure doing what he was doing there, but I was left at my grandparents for a couple of months, and when he came back and got out of the car, the first thing I saw was that guitar. My mother actually played a little bit. She taught me my first chords about the time I moved to Virginia, which was when I was about seven years old.
CP: Was it a case of instantly falling in love with it, or did it take time for music to get its hooks in you? You didn't start songwriting until you were in college.
JM: Yeah, I was starting to write verse when I was in high school. I never finished songs until I was in my early 20s. I don't know if it was in love with the instrument at the time, but I knew it was what I wanted to do, for some reason.
That was when I was 7. Later on, when I started trying to get into it, I was kind of tentative about it. When you're a kid, you think you can do anything, and then as a young adult, you start realizing what it takes. It was a daunting prospect, really, to break out and get into music.
I knew people who were working in Nashville as staff writers pitching their songs to other artists, but I didn't know people who had their own record deals. [John] Mellencamp saved me from that. I was going to go up there and be a staff writer - or try to - because I knew it could be done since I knew people who did it. I had a demo tape that I was going to pitch around, and my dad had a script job writing for John Mellencamp, and I thought he might be able to cut one of my songs. I wasn't looking for a record deal because I hadn't thought it was possible.
I pitched him the demo tape, and John called up and said, “You want to make a record?” I was like, “Sure.”
CP: What was that first experience going into the studio like?
JM: It was, at once, exhilarating and terrifying. John was sort of like the Vince Lombardi of record producers. [Laughs.] He didn't mess around. I thought I rose to the challenge pretty well.
CP: Now that music has been your profession for a couple of decades, do you relate differently to the craft than when you started out and it was still new and fresh?
JM: No, it's still fresh. There's no set process for me, so it's still kind of new every time. I've been producing my own records for the last four or five records, and I don't want to do that forever because I don't want to run out of tricks. Fortunately, C.C. is stepping up to the plate, so maybe I can learn some tricks from him.
CP: You're known for writing story-driven songs. What is it about that approach that appeals to you?
JM: That's just the way I know how to do it, really. I don't know. I never thought it. It's just my technique; that's how I get into the song. I hear a couple of lines of the melody, and I think, “Well, who said that?” Then, the character comes from the line a lot of the time.
CP: Your son has performed with you on a couple of your albums. Was that something you encouraged in him or allowed him to come to on his own?
JM: He's 22 now. He played baritone sax on a couple of my records. He's on “Just Us Kids” and the “Childish Things” records. He's really good at music. It's a joy to watch, to watch his style develop and his talent develop. It's nothing I've had to push him towards. He just found it himself.
CP: Given your father's success as a writer, was writing novels ever a temptation for you?
JM: Prose? Nah, prose is a chore for me. I do a little bit of blogging sometimes, but only when I'm really pissed off. [Laughs.]
CP: But your approach to songwriting seems to be at least somewhat literary since you deal with narrative and characters. Is it possible there's a literary itch somewhere deep down that songwriting scratches?
JM: I guess. I don't know. I don't really think of it as literary; it's more of a musical pursuit. It gives me songs I can play in my set.
CP: So what do you get out of it? Is it catharsis or just a chance to add material to your shows?
JM: I enjoy the connection to the audience. I've been noticing that more and more. I wasn't really good about that early on. Now, I find that when I put something out there, people seem to relate to it and connect to it. They might not be getting out of it what I think I'm putting in, but they're getting something. They're getting something. It's interesting to watch that energy.
CP: Has it ever frustrated you when a song's message failed to connect or connected differently than you intended?
JM: Certainly. Yeah, it was kind of perplexing. “Cheney's Toy” off the “Just Us Kids” record was one. A lot of people took that wrong. It starts out with the image of the soldier, and many people thought I was saying the soldiers were Cheney's toys, but that's not what I was saying. I was saying that George Bush was Cheney's toys.
I thought I put enough references in there about Cheney telling Bush “You're the man” to stroke his ego so Bush would go out and sell his policies. So many people missed those references. It dawned on me that not everyone reads The New York Times and not everyone is going to get it. I should have been more concrete in that chorus. I should have known that a lot of people weren't going to take it that way.
It's still kind of a cool song. It's kind of a drag that they marketed that as a single because it's not single material like “We Can't Make It Here” where people could actually hear themselves in the song. Cheney's Toy” was McMurtry ranting, though it wasn't bad, as far as rants go.
CP: It seems like writing songs that are commenting on current political crises would necessarily be dated or anchored in the moment. Does that worry you that those songs will lose their relevance over time by dealing with such specific events and personalities?
JM: [Laughs.] I hope it does. I'd like to not have to sing “We Can't Make It Here” anymore, but it's still relevant, unfortunately. It still seems to get the crowd riled up, which is good.
CP: That sounds somewhat bittersweet since the song is advocating for change, but if the crowd is still responding, it means the situation hasn't changed. It seems like that would please you as an artist but disappoint you as a citizen.
JM: Yeah, I guess so. It's really hard to make people care, and one song is not going to make a difference. A song will make a difference, but it won't make all the difference. That's hard to get done anymore.
CP: How do you know when you've met someone, experienced something or read something that would make a good story? What sets off your alarm bells?
JM: I don't do it like that. I do it just from lines of melody. It's not like I take an idea and try to write a song to it. I get a couple of lines of melody to it, and if it's cool, then maybe I add a couple more lines to it. Eventually, it builds up into a song. As long as my interest holds up, I'll actually finish the song.
CP: What's your batting average for getting a song all the way through that process?
JM: Pretty slim. I have a big pile of scraps that I work from.
CP: So what's your litmus test for a good song? How do you know that you've succeeded?
JM: It's if I can sing it without cringing all the way through.
CP: To go back to the political side of your repertoire, you started experimenting with that back when the political regime was about to change. Is that something you're still doing?
JM: Well, I've got some political fragments written, but I don't know if I'll finish any of them for this record. We'll see what happens. It's harder to get your head around this administration because you don't know who the bad guys are. There's no Snidely Whiplash in this one.
CP: You mentioned that audience interaction is something you've come to appreciate more in the last several years. When you're on stage, what's your philosophy about engaging them and keeping their attention?
JM: When I'm with the band, I want them to move because if they're moving, then they're having a good time. If they're just staring at you, then you just don't know. If I'm doing a solo performance, it's mostly eye contact. You want to make sure they're engaged somehow.
CP: How do you achieve that? Is it just the song or does it rely on physical presence as well?
JM: It definitely rests on physical presence. You can't just play at them; you have to play to them or with them. That way, you can use the crowd's energy. Wherever you're playing, the room is the instrument; it's not the guitar. It's the whole room, which includes the PA and the people in it. You use any energy you can find. I prefer band performances because you have another element and you can trade the energy between the band members and the audience.
CP: Will the show in Chattanooga be just you or a full band show?
JM: It's the band. I've got Darreen Hess on drums and Cornbread on bass. John Holt runs sound on the first half of the set and then comes up to play guitar during the second half, so it grows from a trio to a four-piece. Darren and John has been with me since 1998. I picked up Cornbread about two years ago. Rodney Johnson, my long time bassist, moved out to West Texas to start a family.
CP: So far, you've released 10 albums. With such a deep catalog, do you find it difficult to relate to your older material or has your relationship to songs like “Choctaw Bingo” and “No More Buffalo” changed over the years?
JM: Nah, the set includes material from pretty much all the records. There are some songs that I don't play anymore because I get tried of them or have new songs I need to work into the set, so I'll take the old songs out.
CP: Your last album came out in 2009, but you're going into the studio in August. What are your trying that's new this time?
JM: I used to put out records when it was time. I'd book the studio time and then have to scramble to get the songs written. Some of it worked out OK, but then there are a lot of tracks on my self-recorded records that don't hold up to me because I didn't really know the songs going in; we were learning them in the studio. Sometimes, there's something cool about when you first learn a song, but we're doing it differently this time. We're working with C.C. Adcock, and he insisted that we actually know the songs. It's taking a little while longer because we want to get them out on the road and put some miles on them so it doesn't sound like I'm reading lyrics off a sheet. I think that will make for a better product, for sure.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...