By Brian D’Ambrosio Explorebigsky.com Contributor
Early in his career, James McMurtry decided the only way to deal with a
confining world was to become so liberated that his very existence was an
act of rebellion.
Haunting beauty and jugular-grabbing verbiage are two of the connective
threads that link the acclaimed albums McMurtry has released in his nearly
quarter-century career.
But this lyricist, once referred to by horror author Stephen King as “the
songwriting conscience of America,” stands aloof at the periphery of
mainstream music.
McMurtry’s songwriting is lucid and precise, and he isn’t afraid to take on the
powers that be. Perhaps his lines have ruffled too many political feathers;
most notably, Just Us Kids, which featured the venom-laced Cheney’s Toy, a
pointed musical indictments of George W. Bush. Even though the bulk of
McMurtry’s catalogue is apolitical, he has been branded as a political
songwriter, a guy who can ratchet up the polemics.
“Sure, I’ve been pigeonholed,” McMurtry said, “In life you don’t want to be
labeled. Unfortunately, you have to, or the music industry can’t package you.
I’ve still got to make a living. I don’t mind if people listen to my political stuff,
but it’s only a small part of what I do. I don’t like being judged on only a few
songs, because it can be a detriment.”
A self-professed misanthrope, McMurtry says that he has learned over the
years how to play to an audience rather than at them. The high-energy and
sustained tempo of his performances retains audiences; yet, the elusive
nature of his style – folk, blues, country, Americana, rock and roll, you pick –
makes it hard to pin him down to a specific genre.
James McMurtry was born in 1962, in Forth Worth, Texas, the son of
acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment).
He grew up on a fixed diet of Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff records. As a young
Texan, McMurtry wanted to be Cash. His mother taught him to play a few
chords on the guitar when has only 7, and he started writing songs in
college, moving on to perform at beer gardens and happy hours all over
Arizona and Texas.
“I worked as a bartender, singer in San Antonio and played gigs in Tucson
when I was a student, studying English and Spanish,” McMurtry said. “I
hadn’t written anything of my own, and I got tired of doing that. I wanted
something that was mine. When I migrated to San Antonio, I got involved in that Kerrville Folk Festival. They had a songwriter contest, so I managed to
scrape some songs together for that. I was in the winner’s circle, but I didn’t
get invited back to the main stage. But it was a little bit of a lift. I started
getting gigs in Austin.”
His father passed his demo to singer John Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry’s
1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, marking the beginning of a series of
projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill.
McMurtry’s 2005 Childish Things garnered some of the highest critical praise
of his career and spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Americana Music Radio
Chart in 2005 and 2006. Bold, smart and pithy, the album captures the artist
at the top of his game. In September 2006, Childish Things and We Can’t
Make It Here
won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the
Year, respectively. McMurtry received more Americana Music Award
nominations for 2008’s Just Us Kids, an album that marked his highest
Billboard 200 chart position.
Though he is a solid guitar player, it’s his poignant lyrics that keep McMurtry
so topical. Last year, We Can’t Make It Here was cited among The Nation’s
“Best Protest Songs Ever.”
At this stage in his life, McMurtry understands that he may always be restricted to
the distinct musical circle that appreciates his gritty lyrical style and honest
portrayals of American life.
“Since my first album, I’ve been labeled as an odd critical hit and commercial
disappointment,” he said. “My whole career consists of a lot of stuff that’s just out
of my grasp and control. It’s beyond me.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. He conducted this telephone
interview with James McMurtry in early June 2013. McMurtry toured Montana
this June, hitting Livingston, Bozeman, Virginia City and Missoula. The
musician typically comes through Montana, on average, between five and
seven times per year.