James McMurtry’s observations seep into his songwriting
Singer-songwriter James McMurtry
When: 8 p.m. on Jan. 2 and 4; 6 p.m. on Jan. 5
Where: The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St.
Cost: Friday tickets run from $27-$43; Saturday and Sunday tickets run from $33-$49
Singer-songwriter James McMurtry says he’s not really a political activist, despite the political bent of his songs “State of the Union” and “We Can’t Make It Here.”
“That’s not really the main thrust that I do, but every now and then I wander into things,” said McMurtry, who will perform Jan. 3-5 at the Egyptian Theatre. “Songwriters can create whatever art they want to. I got into it just to have a job where I didn’t have to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
“We Can’t Make It Here,” released in 2005, took a critical look at the economy under President George W. Bush, and “State of the Union,” which McMurtry released in 2017, could be considered a sequel, as it relates the political divide between family members during a holiday gathering to the political divide in the United States under President Trump.
McMurtry had been thinking about this divide for quite a while.
“My family has always been divided, and it has become further divided,” he said. “It was pretty bad under George W. Bush, because everyone had their identities wrapped up in Bush. But now they are wrapped up in Trump.”
While McMurtry said he can’t help that his political observations of the world seep into his art, he also knows moderation is key.
“You don’t want to do this full time, because then you start writing sermons,” he said. “After a while, people won’t want to listen to you.”
McMurtry found his way into songwriting after performing open mics in the 1980s. In 1987, he entered the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk songwriters contest and won.
That same year, Grammy winner John Mellencamp, who was working on a film about McMurtry’s father, novelist Larry McMurtry, contacted the budding songwriter to submit some songs for the soundtrack.
The demo McMurtry gave to Mellencamp became the songwriter’s 1989 debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland.”
“I knew it was possible to become a singer-songwriter because I knew people who were doing it,” McMurtry said. “I knew it was possible, but I didn’t really think about getting a record deal until (John) Mellencamp called me and asked if I wanted to do a record.”
McMurtry decided to go ahead with the album, which Mellencamp co-produced.
“I thought there was a chance that I may crash and burn, but if I knew if I didn’t take the opportunity now, the door might not ever open up again,” he said.
To this day McMurtry is surprised Columbia Records didn’t drop him after he released the album.
“As I listen to my old stuff, I find that I really couldn’t sing at all,” he said. “If I’d known how much I sucked, I wouldn’t have kept doing it.”
The songwriter, however, kept at it.
“Eventually I learned how to sing on the job, and got better at it,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to get better and keep doing it, but I still don’t know why.”
These days McMurtry continues to make music, because, he says, it pays the mortgage.
“I would probably be happy to sit on a barstool and not do another thing, but I don’t get to do that,” he said with a laugh. “I say that; I know that if you don’t do anything it will drive you crazy, You don’t have a sense of worth when you’re doing nothing. But it is tempting to just sit and watch the world go by.”
McMurtry confessed he had to force himself to finish his next album, which he plans to release sometime in 2020.
“I just had to book the studio time, so I would be under intense pressure to get the songs written or they would still be half-written on my hard drive,” he said with a laugh.
While McMurtry has experienced many challenges throughout his career, he said completing a song is always a struggle.
“Starting a song isn’t a problem, but it’s hard to finish a song where it’s usable,” he said. “I think if you can sing a song without cringing, it will become more than the sum of its parts. And when that happens, it might be done.”
Even then, he said, he will still tweak them when he plays live.
“When I released ‘State of the Union,’ the arrangement was a little half-baked at the time,” he said. “It’s much better now.”
McMurtry likes to perform live, and he enjoys the show more if he can get people dancing.
“When they dance, you know they’re having a good time,” he said. “If they just sit and look at you, they might be having a good time, but you never know.”
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