Exploring Entertainment in Florida's 850 & Beyond
James McMurtry is a songwriter’s songwriter. With a couple of Americana Music Awards, over a dozen albums, and high praise from the most revered music critics – McMurtry is the definition nonchalant.
For our conversation he offered measured responses, which seem to be the hallmark of a McMurtry interview. In a world of ego-driven performers, McMurtry is quick to be humble.
“It comes at the same time,” McMurtry says of his songwriting process. “I get a couple of lines with the melody, and I keep picking at it.”
McMurtry has earned both acclaim and disdain for songs that criticized the George W. Bush administration, and the more recent ‘State of the Union’ which focuses on feeling like an outsider to your family when your political views don’t line up.
“These songs are not necessarily my point of view,” says McMurtry. “I’m a fiction writer. I write from the point of view of a character, who may or may not agree with me.”
“In the case of ‘We Can’t Make It Here’, I got lucky because the character was saying kind of what I think. But you’ve got to be real careful trying to put your point across politically or spiritually or whatever else because you’re liable to get on… Like how on a horseback, you don’t want to get on the horses head too much. It’s the same with a song. You don’t want to get on the song’s head, you want to let the song be the song and do what it does. And if you try to force it, to get your idea across, you might end up writing a sermon instead of a song. Who’s going to want to listen to it?”
For others who are struggling with wading into more controversial songwriting waters, McMurtry has some encouragement. “I would say, what do you got to lose really? And then, the Dixie Chicks got in all that trouble for criticizing Bush, but they laughed all the way to the bank because somebody had to buy those CDs that those rednecks ran over with the semis, and then they got a number one record.”
“It doesn’t always work out that way, but you’re only here for a short amount of time: Are you going to keep your ideas in or are you going to get them out while you’re here?”
McMurtry says it was the man in black that first caught his ear to lead him toward music. “I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I grew up, so I didn’t care anything about (being a storyteller)… I don’t read. My father’s an avid reader, book collector, author. But I might read a book a year, maybe. I skip a lot of years.”
“I like the sound. I really liked that Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins’ guitar and all that reverb and that snare drum and Johnny’s acoustic and that was it. And they made all that sound with it. I guess it was Sam Phillips that really made that sound.”
Later came admiring songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. “And then I saw him play live, and everybody up there seemed to be having such a great time that I thought, ‘Well that’s what I want to do’.”
When asked what he would tell his younger self, McMurtry was quick to reply, “Quit smoking and get voice lessons.”
“I had to take voice lessons, because for a while there I’d go on the road and I’d lose my voice the third night out, and I mean lose it. I’d be just croaking through the back of the set, says McMurtry. “And what I found was I kept taking it for a while and it actually really helped my songwriting, because I would think in terms of writing for the voice, because the voice is an instrument, and you got to watch diphthongs and weird consonants.”
“It’s not poetry, it’s song. You have to be able to sing it, and voice helps with that. Voice lessons really helped.”
McMurtry is near completion of a new full-length album. Keep up with updates about that and his ongoing tour schedule at http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/.