James McMurtry casts a literary eye on life on the road

To listen to a song by James McMurtry is to follow a miniature novel. It's the way he looks at people. They pass through his life and he constructs a narrative based on a bit of speech, a street-tough setting, and with an hornery, razor-sharp wit he brings them alive. He finds the smaller corners of American life and paints a poem. Life on the road is what does it. That's where many of McMurtry, singer, songwriter and storyteller, finds his songs. He's a consumate observer, a fly on the wall as he travels.

"With the character sketches I start with a couple of lines and I melody and I think, 'Who said that?' " he says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "I live a somewhat transient lifestyle and so I'm kind of a little bit on the outside ... it's a good place to write from."

McMurtry has made a name for himself as a songwriter of literary merit. His vignettes seem to come from the off-the-track communities, from the neon streets to the corners of desperation in the rural areas. He's a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to Walmart and in general sings about the larger forces challenging the everyman.

"That's the common theme for everybody," he says. "David versus Goliath is just one of we always sing about. I sing about relationships and carrying on in the cage of staleness. I like to use occasional bits of anachronistic speech so that the language doesn't disappear."

His lyrics are loaded with concrete details and a protest singer's venom. In 2005 he got some attention for the political quality of "We Can't Make It Here," a tune that after more than 10 years still rings true:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

McMurtry says people thought the song was about President George W. Bush, but really he started writing it during the Bill Clinton administration in the late 1980s. The lyrics evolved with the passage of time. He has managed to avoid writing a song specifically about the current election year, despite the attraction of writing about Donald Trump. The closest he came, he says, was writing a song about despots. But in this case it was about the World War II era Spanish dictator, Generalissmo Francisco Franco.

"I wrote one protest song ("Can't Make it Here")and it got a lot of attention," he says. "You tend to get branded for what you get noticed for."

One of the mandatory songs he does during his performances, "Choctaw Bingo," had an interesting history. The song rolls along like Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" or Elvis Costello's "Tokyo Storm Warning," hitting the listener's ears with a torrent of images.

"There was a bingo parlor in Oklahoma and I decided to use it as a writing exercise," he says. "I put it upon myself to include everything I could take in and put it in a song. Within a year of writing that almost everything I had written in the song had disappeared, and so I wrote about other stuff that took place there. They had something called Red River Rehab and so I wrote about that, gave it a new verse. In the time since then I've written another new verse. Now it's 13 minutes long."

McMurtry was destined to be someone of literary merit. He is the son of Larry McMurtry, author of "Lonesome Dove" and "Breakback Mountain," and his mother is a professor of English (now retired). She taught her son the rudiments of guitar at the age of seven, but didn't really consider music as a profession until he was studying English at the University of Arizona, getting into the local club scene during an age of new wave and punk. His first paying gig was in Benson, Arizona, playing "old time fiddle tunes" in a movie theater and at the local golf club.

"My mother taught me three chords and the rest I just stole as I went along. I learned everything by ear or by watching people," he says.

After spending much of the 1980s doing odd jobs and moving around the country, including a spell in Alaska, he entered a songwriting contest at the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival, and was one of six to win. His connections with his father's film projects led him to meeting John Mellencamp, who co-produced his first album. That landed him right in the heartland sound of the late 1980s, with ringing guitars washing over country-folk, just as what's now known as Americana was gathering force. The 1989 debut, "Too Long in the Wasteland" provided enough notoriety that he joined a super group for a short time, called the Buzzin' Cousins, which included Mellencamp, John Prine, Joe Ely, and Dwight Yoakam.

He now tours with his own band, the Heartless Bastards, and also does numerous strictly acoustic shows.

In more recent years, his recording pace has slowed, but the critical acclaim has not. "Complicated Game," released last year, was his first studio release in six years, but followed a period where he won numerous awards, winning album of the year at the 5th Annual Americana Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2006. His 2008 release, "Just Us Kids," gained the highest Billboard 200 chart position in his career, topping the Americana Music Radio list for six weeks.

He says the whole business of making albums has changed. When he started out, the release of a CD would eventually lead to a tour if it was successful. But now the tour is what sells the records. The days of "mailbox" money, in terms of royalties in the age of internet downloads, are long gone.
"I probably will have to start to work on one pretty soon," he says. "All of the money comes off the road nowadays."

McMurtry is a keen documentarian of the changes that have taken place in the country over the past several decades. In the song "Fuller Brush Man," he laments the passing of the door-to-door salesmen that, like the honky tonks of old, have come and gone. Like his songs, he interprets all of this without sentimentality.

"I don't know if those things need to exist anymore," he says.