James McMurtry gets mileage out of politics in his outlaw-style country rock

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:: James McMurtry :: Bluebird Theater :: July 13 ::
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By Brian F. Johnson

Last summer, as my father and I drove through North Carolina on a weekend getaway, the old man posed a question that neither he nor I have quite been able to answer yet.
We had been listening to my iPod when John Prine’s “Some Humans Ain’t Human” came on. For those who don’t know the tune, Prine does a little rant in mid-song that talks about “a cowboy from Texas who starts his own war in Iraq.”
My dad’s query was simple, “Where are all of the protest songs?”
The only answer we’ve been able to come up with is that there really aren’t any. Sure, almost every artist on stage these days can be assured some applause by throwing a dagger at President Bush, but it almost feels as trite as a band playing the Fillmore in Denver mentioning Colfax Ave., just to get that recognition cheer.

James McMurtry has another take on it. “There aren’t any, because there’s no draft. There’s a war going on right now and some songwriters try to touch on it without getting on too big a soap box. I try to mention it in a couple songs because it’s our landscape right now, but what I don’t like is that politics seems to be ignored by music right now,” McMurtry said in a recent interview with The Marquee.
McMurtry knows first-hand what a political song can do to an artist’s career. In 2004, just before the election, he digitally released “We Can’t Make It Here,” when Bush’s popularity was still relatively high. The song, which starts off with a commentary of a Vietnam war veteran begging on a street corner and the statement, “and there’s more come back from the Mid-East war,” goes on to talk about the blight on blue-collar America, as jobs continue to be outsourced and local economies suffer because of it.
The song was first played in an acoustic version on a station in McMurtry’s home town of Austin, Texas. “They spun it during the morning drive time and I had some nasty e-mails on my website before I even got home,” he said. “Now, I tend to get a lot more positive feedback because Bush’s approval rating is so low — it equaled out pretty fast.”
Still, McMurtry acknowledges that he’s gotten more mileage and attention out of the song than he has from many of his previous albums, and it’s not from lack of good albums before.
The self-taught guitarist has been making music for more than 20 years. Born in Fort Worth, Texas to the famed novelist/screenwriter Larry McMurtry, who penned Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment and, most recently, Brokeback Mountain, McMurtry was raised in Virginia.
He was first drawn to music after his mother took him to see Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash live. While his father was working on the film Falling From Grace, he passed on his son’s demo to John Mellencamp, in hopes that Mellencamp might like one of his songs enough to record it. Instead, Mellencamp ended up producing McMurtry’s Columbia Records debut, Too Long In The Wasteland. He went on to make a couple more albums for Columbia before switching to Sugar Hill Records and eventually landing at Compadre Records. His discography has been praised heavily by critics, and he’s been called one of the strongest songwriters of his generation.
Despite the critical acclaim, it’s the political comments that McMurtry gets the most attention for, and a vast majority of his songs aren’t politically based. Most are character-driven songs, Middle America tales ranging from inspirational anthems to down-and-out life portraits. But, in one of his better-known songs, “Levelland,” he used to do a live rant about Mr. Bush’s pronunciation of ‘nuclear.’ “A woman in Plano, Texas, got really mad and started dancing around with a sign at my shows that said ‘Keep Politics Out Of Music.’ So I guess she’s not going to listen to Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. I don’t think that she was against politics in music, I think that it was that she just didn’t like my politics,” McMurtry said.
But even those cases don’t give McMurtry any cause to change the way he does things. “I don’t really care how they take it. In some cases, if they get pissed off that just means that they heard it. And what do people get the maddest about? They’re not really touchy about the bullshit. They’re really touchy about the truth,” he said.
As The Marquee caught up with McMurtry, he was, quite literally, in the studio working on the follow-up to his 2004 release Childish Things. The new album, which he said takes a different approach for him since it’s not as guitar focused as his previous albums, is not yet titled, and McMurtry said that he hopes to have it out in January of 2008.

:: James McMurtry ::
:: Bluebird Theater :: July 13 ::

Spectate if you Gravitate:
• Steve Earle
• Robert Earl Keen
• John Mellencamp

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