One of the truly gifted Texas songsmiths, James McMurtry has carved a nice, viable career out of great lyrics, stellar playing, hard touring, a good work ethic, and common sense. His last two studio albums, Childish Things (2005) and Just Us Kids (2008), established McMurtry as one of the most fearless voices of dissent in popular music, with rock critic Robert Christgau actually naming "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" as the best song of the decade.
McMurtry rolls into town Saturday with label mate Jason Isbell for a double bill at the Firehouse Saloon. We caught up with him just before sound check at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin.
Rocks Off: In terms of career, do you think the political turn in some of your writing has been a plus or a negative? Do you wrestle with that, whether to go political or stay out of that area?
James McMurtry: It's been a huge plus. Career-wise, "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" took us around a corner to a new level. It seemed like we'd hit a wall as far as new venues, new fans, then that song brought a lot of attention that just boosted everything to a new level. Unfortunately, it also has caused me to be tagged as a political or protest writer, and that's only a small part of my songwriting.
RO: What was your reaction to your father's [writer Larry McMurtry] piece on Rick Perry in the New York Review of Books?
JM: Pretty much a bullseye.
RO: What's your take on the current Republican campaign circus?
JM: I don't pay that much attention to it, really. To me, except for Romney and Ron Paul, they're all pretty crazy. Ron Paul doesn't get much attention, and I'm not saying he has things all figured out either, but he says stuff even the Democrats are afraid to say and I like that. At least Paul and Romney make a sliver of sense every once in a while.
RO: Neither you nor your father seem to be raving lefties. You seem more like a centrist with some survivalist ideas thrown in.
JM: The sad thing is there is no center anymore. There's no centrist consensus in this country like there used to be. Literally everything is polarized now.
RO: What do you attribute that to?
JM: We don't have any trusted central figures like we used to turn to, people like Walter Cronkite or Roger Mudd, people we trusted. Now there's sixty channels competing for viewers or listeners so everyone has their own channel. Instead of getting a balanced view, today people just listen to the channel with the talking heads who say what they want to hear. Another Walter Cronkite coming along might help get more of us back to the center, which would help the country.
RO: The last time we talked, you had just gotten back from Austin after going up to Cindy Sheehan's camp outside the Presidential compound in Crawford. Do you stay in touch with her?
JM: I never actually met her. I got involved with that whole thing through Veterans For Peace. I met some of those guys and they asked me to play at a convention they had. Cindy spoke there and I was very impressed with what she had to say and what she was trying to do, so that's how I got involved. That's one angle the press never got right, and I think if there had been more stress on the involvement of the Veterans For Peace at Crawford, if the press had really picked up on that angle, it would've been much more powerful. Those guys sent a whole platoon down to Crawford to support her and run that camp. The press completely whiffed on that.
RO: It seems like it's time for a new studio album. Will you be going for the political angle again?
JM: I'm sure there will be some of that. But it's been almost four years since that last batch of new songs and everything has changed since then. But, yeah, it is time for a new album.
RO: What do you mean, everything has changed?
JM: In 2008, you put out a new album so you could tour. Now you tour so you can make another album. Record sales are a continually shrinking part of what it takes to make a music career viable today versus four years ago.
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RO: One final question out of left field: What is your favorite Larry McMurtry book?
JM: Duane's Depressed.
RO: Yeah, that's one of my favorites too, although I'd also have to say Leaving Cheyenne and Cadillac Jack.
JM: Cheyenne is certainly a standout in his early work, but Duane's Depressed is still the one for me. It's just about perfect. Dad said he knew right from the start that one was just going to work. He said it was like knowing you were going to hit a homerun before you'd even stepped in the batter's box.