He can make it here
James McMurtry writes a song about downsizing and finds his popularity in an upswing
If you’re James McMurtry, your music falls into several disparate categories. You play guitar-based rock with a country bent, but it’s not alt-country. You write lyrics like short stories, with vivid characters and believable situations, and deliver them in a blend of the sung and the spoken, your mild Texas twang sounding world-weary in an honest, understated way. Your live shows blow the roofs off places. Yet mainstream success—whatever that is—eludes you.
Then in the span of three years, you release a foot-stomping guitar fest, the widely admired Live in Aught-Three; a headline-grabbing political song, 2004’s “We Can’t Make it Here”; and another critically lauded studio album, 2005’s Childish Things. All garner attention unseen since your debut in 1989.
“I put out ‘We Can’t Make it Here’ as a free download months before we even made the rest of the record, and it instantly took on a life of its own on the Internet,” said McMurtry in a recent phone interview.
“I’ve always shied away from the political thing because I was afraid my songs would turn into sermons and nobody would want to listen to them,” he said. “And then it just got to the point where it doesn’t look like my vote counts for a whole lot, especially not in Texas.”
McMurtry need not worry. “We Can’t Make it Here” is the best of what political songwriting can be. It’s a series of weary observations from the point of view of an American mill worker, unemployed after the outsourcing that began under Clinton and continued under Bush. With McMurtry’s laconic vocal and eminently hummable lead guitar line, it’s a political song that makes you think while tapping your feet.
“It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, particularly in the rust belt,” he said. “And our biggest market right now is Bangor, Maine. Maine has lost 30,000 jobs to outsourcing. So, it really hit home for those people.”
That does beg the question: What does James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning writer Larry McMurtry, know about unemployed mill workers?
“My job is to write,” he answered, a tad impatiently. “And the popularity of the song has very little to do with the writer. It has everything to do with the listener. And a lot of people are identifying with this, which is good for me, but not a good sign for the country.” Then he admitted, “I’ve gotten quite a bit of very fervent negative reaction to the song.”
When pressed about his father’s influence, he said, “The writing skills are not hereditary. Larry has no writers in his background.” He added, “Environmentally, I’m sure being around him affected me just because I heard him tell a lot of stories, and that’s where a song comes from. But I don’t have the prose muscle.”
Instead, McMurtry flexes his rhyme-and-meter muscle ably on Childish Things. There’s enough variation, like the rollicking country standard “Slew Foot” and several songs of adult ruminations on childhood innocence, to balance everything out for the folks who prefer storytelling to politics.
“There are several songs from the point of view of a kid,” McMurtry explained. “It always struck me that we’re supposed to believe in a divinity and we’re supposed to believe in a heaven but we’re not supposed to believe in ghosts because that’s childish.” He chuckled. “It’s an odd thing.”
McMurtry and his band will address that dichotomy on the road throughout the fall, stopping at the Palms Playhouse in Winters on October 4. “It’s a listening room,” he said of the venue, “but if you do feel like dancing, pleeease don’t be shy.”
And when dancing, forget all the things that James McMurtry is or is not—country-rocker, political commentator, son of a famous writer—and just get lost in the music. It’s easy to do when the music is this good.