Songs from the road
All of America is home for singer/songwriter James McMurtry
James McMurtry spends hundreds of hours in the van each year, traveling America’s highways to the 100-plus shows he and his band perform. The van hours, however, aren’t just down time. The travel, McMurtry says, provides inspiration for his songs.
Take, for example, the song “South Dakota,” the story of a young military veteran returning to his small town and the family farm from his most recent album, 2015’s well-received Complicated Game: “There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/Barbed wire won’t stop the wind/You won’t get nothin’ here but broke and older/If I was you I might re-up again.”
“I drive around a lot,” the Austin-based musician said via telephone. “That’s what we do. We travel around in the van, playing my music. … We drive through these little towns and they always have a banner, ‘Welcome Home PFC …’ That’s where it came from, and knowing people in the Army. One of my best friends was in for 22 years. He basically went broke and needed a job. He went into the Army.”
Once McMurtry gets a line or two down, he has enough to set up the rest of the song.
“I get a couple lines and a melody and then I think, ‘Who said that?’ I try to create the character who said that, then I go backward to the story, sometimes.”
While he’s always writing, McMurtry didn’t record Complicated Game until things started slowing down on the road.
“I didn’t make a record for four or five years because we didn’t need to,” he said. “Then the club cycle, the attendance started falling off, so we made another one. That’s what they’re for now. We make em so guys like you write about them and write about us and people know we’re coming to town.”
Coming to town has become McMurtry’s stock-in-trade. Sales of CDs have dwindled, payment from digital downloads is less than for physical goods and he said that money from streaming is almost nonexistent.
“That’s the way the music business is now,” McMurtry said. “We’re on the road half the year. When we’re home, we do work around here and I have regular gigs in Austin. It’s the only way to make money anymore. The mailbox money isn’t there anymore. … It was a completely different world when I started out.”
That was 28 years ago, when his debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, was released by Columbia Records. But he’d been playing music since his dad, novelist Larry McMurtry, gave him a guitar at 7 and his mom taught him a couple chords.
“I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I was growing up,” McMurtry said. “By the time I was supposed to be grown up, I learned there were people who wrote songs for other singers. I was going to move to Nashville to be a songwriter.”
About that time, John Mellencamp was directing and acting in a movie, Falling From Grace, from a script written by Larry McMurtry.
“I pitched [Mellencamp] a tape, hoping he’d want to record one of my songs. That way when I got to Nashville, somebody would rent me an apartment because I’d have money coming in,” McMurtry said. “He didn’t want to record any of the songs, but he produced an album for me. He got me the deal with Columbia Records.”
Songs from the latest album naturally make up a good portion of McMurtry’s current set. But he said there are some old tunes—like “Choctaw Bingo” from 2002’s Saint Mary of the Woods and “Levelland” off 1995’s Where’d You Hide the Body—that he and the band have to play in every town before settling back into the van and onto the road for some more inspiration.