James McMurtry is looking for a gas station. Wheeling around Missouri in his van, the Texas-based singer-songwriter is determined to find some petrol, and he's not going to let a little interview get in his way. "I'm lookin' for a good place to pull up here, 'cause I'm makin' my band nervous," McMurtry says in a gruff drawl. "There doesn't seem to be a gas station that I have a card for anywhere near here. That's no good."
In conversation, McMurtry doesn't mince words. He says what he means and gets right to the point. His starkly descriptive songs aren't much different. Conjuring a cavalcade of disenfranchised and weary individuals, his tunes expose the underside of the American dream. Uncle Slaton, a character in McMurtry's "Choctaw Bingo," "Cooks that crystal meth because the 'shine don't sell," and gives his kids Benadryl with their Cherry Cokes during a road trip. "I have encountered people like that," McMurtry says of his song's subjects. "But they get fictionalized."
When the singer-songwriter plays Higher Ground this Tuesday, expect gritty, slice-of-life observations intermingled with unabashedly left-leaning politics and hot-shit guitar.
"I started playing gigs when I was 18, and I think I just wanted something that would separate me from the rest of the mob that was playing Jimmy Buffett songs," says McMurtry, now 43, about his early years. Although his music is sometimes classified as folk or country, he is at heart a rock 'n' roller. He actually bears a few similarities to Lou Reed: Both men are intelligent wordsmiths with a penchant for dirty guitars and a healthy distrust of mainstream America.
Writing might be in McMurtry's genes. He's the son of famed novelist Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment. His mother was an English teacher. When asked how his parents felt about his decision to become a musician, McMurtry is characteristically succinct. "They stayed out of it, for the most part," he says. "It made my mother a little bit nervous for awhile, but she's all right."
Still, it was his father's connection to musician John Mellencamp that scored McMurtry his big break. While working on Mellencamp's first foray into film, the elder McMurtry slipped the rock star a couple of his son's demo recordings. Mellencamp was instantly hooked; he signed on to produce McMurtry's 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, and introduced him to Columbia Records.
Although the album was critically acclaimed, Too Long failed to live up to Columbia's sales expectations. Its 1992 follow-up, Candyland, was embraced by an increasingly devoted fan base, but made little headway with bottom-liners at the label. Foot-dragging and A&R department politics drove McMurtry's final Columbia effort, Where'd You Hide the Body? into release-date limbo.
"That's the kind of thing that happens," McMurtry says. "The process is more arduous at a major label 'cause there's more people involved, and more egos involved. And they have more money to indulge those egos. I remember I was on this singer-songwriter tour with Don Dixon and a bunch of other guys," he continues. "They were talking about somebody's indie record that was pretty good, and Dixon goes, 'Of course it's good -- they didn't give her enough money to screw it up!'"
Even while watching his records languish because of other people's decisions, McMurtry kept working. "You just play whatever gigs you can. Keep going. Think about the next one. Write more songs."
Like Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson, McMurtry doesn't just spin a good yarn. He's also a formidable guitarist. While his studio efforts showcase his narrative skills, his latest CD, Live in Aught-Three, is a searing display of his six-string prowess. "I just write songs that are an excuse to have a lot of guitar," he says. "I think when people make records they forget to make music. The studio is kind of restrictive. When you're live, you can go ahead and explore."
McMurty has seen his fan base changing a bit lately. "A lot of my original fans are getting pretty old," he says with a chuckle. "It's hard to get 'em out anymore. In Texas, I'm getting a lot more frat kids. Maybe they found out I wrote that song ["Levelland"] that Robert Earl Keen did. They're actually a lot of fun. They don't like my politics much, though. I get a lot of nasty emails. But they come to the shows."
Politics are one thing the reserved McMurtry can't keep quiet about. His latest tune "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," is loaded with scathing indictments of America's cultural climate and the men holding the reins. "Wow, I'm stocking shirts at this Wal-Mart store," he sings, "Just like the ones we made before/Now they're made in Singapore/I guess we can't make it here anymore."
Available as a free download on his website, the song is a terrific summation of the frustration many people feel at having their lives and livelihoods gambled away for the profit of a few. "They've never known want, they'll never know need," McMurtry continues. "Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed/Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war/And we can't make it here anymore."
Spend a few minutes chatting with the songwriter and you'll hear his disgust with the current administration. What did he think of George W. Bush's tenure as the governor of the Lone Star State? "I didn't like him then, and I don't like him now," McMurtry says. "I'd rather have your ex-governor."
As a liberal resident of the largest "red state," McMurtry thinks the red and blue divisions are somewhat misleading. "It's deceptive, because the states themselves are divided," he says. "Pennsylvania is blue, but just barely. Everything from Philly to Pittsburgh is like Alabama if you drive through there.
"One of the most chilling things that I heard during the 2000 elections came from the former governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge," McMurtry adds. "A CNN reporter asked him, 'How are you going to deliver this state for Mr. Bush?' And Ridge looks him right in the eye and says, 'Well, we're currently trying to hold down a massive turnout in Philadelphia that could hurt us.' This was before the Florida recounts, and he says they're trying to hold down turnout like it was business as usual. The really disturbing part was that the CNN guy didn't say, 'Excuse me, Governor, but what the hell do you mean?' He didn't say anything."
Religious fundamentalists really get McMurtry going. "I think it's gonna get worse, really," he says. "The Christian right has taken over, and these people believe that the end of the world is a good thing. It brings on the Rapture, so they're willing to hasten it. They're not fucking around. They're not gonna listen to science or any kind of rational argument."
McMurtry isn't giving up, though. He's out on the road, writing protest music and living his life. With a growing catalogue of tunes, a no-bullshit attitude and a kick-ass live band, he seems pretty content. "My idea of the perfect live show is where I don't think," McMurtry says. "I'm just playing the music... I'm in it, people are movin' and I'm movin' with them."