James McMurtry: Fierce & Literate | Fierce, Literate, and Texan

The Village Voice called songwriter James McMurtry "a poet of the people."

Austin, Texas, is the home of many great musicians. Among them, Joe Ely, Bob Schneider, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and James McMurtry have graced our state with performances during recent months. McMurtry is headed back. This time he will play at the Mill in Iowa City on October 4 with his band the Heartless Bastards.

“I’m not so sure what it is about Austin. It used to be cheap rents that attracted musicians, but nothing is cheap there any more,” McMurtry said over the telephone from his Texas home. “But I know what it is about Iowa. You guys show up when we come to play!”

McMurtry has gigged all over the world during his 20-plus year career, including the main stage at the Iowa City Festival of the Arts one year. His last release, Live from Europe, was recorded at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, Holland. He said there are not many places he hasn’t been, although he hasn’t always made money off of his tours.

His work has attracted many fans, including the best-selling author of horror novels Stephen King, who has called McMurtry “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation” in Entertainment Weekly.

“King has been a real supporter, not only in terms of praise, but he owns the biggest classic rock radio station in Bangor, Maine, and it puts our music in rotation regularly—even ‘Choctaw Bingo,’ a nine-minute song that doesn’t fit modern programming,” McMurtry said in a clear and direct voice. He spoke in measured syllables as he considered his words carefully. Dealing with authors has been something McMurtry has done his entire life. He is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment).

“Because of King, we command large audiences in Maine,” McMurtry mused. “I mean, who would have guessed that.” McMurtry does have regular shows in Austin. Tuesday nights he frequently plays solo upstairs in the Continental Club gallery, and on Wednesdays he and the band play the main bar at the Continental Club downstairs venue. McMurtry said he worked hard to get those spots because it is hard to be a hero in your hometown.

He gave an example. “Does Dave Moore still live in Iowa City? He’s a great  musician. I met him down in San Antone when he was studying Cojunto music on the accordion. I love his music. He’s a great talent that every musician I know respects, but in Iowa I bet he’s just another guy. That’s just the way it is.”

McMurtry said his biggest complaint about being on the road so much was that he found it impossible to write music while traveling. He and his two band members, drummer Daren Hess and bassist Ronnie Johnson, and their road manager Tim Holt, who often joins them on-stage playing guitar, drive a one-ton Chevy truck to the venues. McMurtry said he has composed a few new songs before the tour that he has yet to record that he will play and see what the live audience thinks.

“None of the songs are as political as ‘We Can’t Make It Here,’ ” McMurtry said, alluding to his most popular song. Rock critic Robert Christgau voted it the Best Song of the Decade in Rolling Stone’s 2010 music poll. “I believe in the importance of telling a story over that of making a sermon.”

The Austin musician did have praise for President Obama’s Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) program, which allows him and other self-employed people to receive health care benefits that they otherwise would be without. He noted that most musicians do not have access to health care because of the nature of the job. McMurtry wanted me to be sure to spread the word about PCIP because there are many people who need it and are eligible, but they do not know about it.

“I don’t preach. I weave my message into the song and let the audience decide what it all means,” McMurtry said. “But if you listen carefully, even a song about a family event or a relationship gone wrong or just having fun has a context. I comment on the particulars so you can see what life is like and compare it to what you think life should be like. That and listen to the sound of guitar being played. Sometimes the sound of the music says more than the lyrics,” he said with a cryptic inflection.

McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards are known for rocking out live, a fact demonstrated on their most recent live album as well as an earlier one, Live In Aught-Three. He professes admiration for C.C. Adcock and Sonny Landreth, two guitar-playing monsters. “If I get down and need something to play to get me up again, it’s either Adcock’s Lafayette Marquis or Landreth’s Outward Bound. They may be from Louisiana instead of Texas, but those guys kick some serious butt.”

But McMurtry said he is influenced by more than just other music. He’s a regular reader of print media and gets paper copies of the Austin Chronicle, Texas Observer, and the New York Times to ponder and search for ideas. “I mean, sometimes I am just looking for the movie times, but then something will grab my attention. It just sits there in my head, waiting for the right moment. . . .” McMurtry’s voice faded out, and then continued, “It’s like when I am in Iowa, I don’t know what the day will be like or who will be at the show. But maybe something will happen that will make me see something differently.  It happens all the time.”

 “I know Iowa City and Austin are both college towns, but they are not the same. I like Iowa,” he said wryly, “and not just because Rick Perry is not your governor. That would be a whole other story.” 

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