McMurty balances the message and the music | AspenTimes.com

McMurty balances the message and the music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry performs this week at Belly Up. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)
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As an 18-year-old at the University of Arizona, James McMurtry watched a parade of fellow students march up to the microphone, guitars in hands, and sing the same selection of cover songs. The compensation for such work was a few free beers. McMurtry was looking for a greater reward – “I did it so women would talk to me,” he said – so he tried a different tack, and began writing his own songs.”I wasn’t going to make the football team. So I had to do something,” said the 45-year-old in a phone conversation. “A couple of lines of melody – that was enough to keep me up at night, till I finished the song.”It would take awhile before that hobby became a profession. “Too Long in the Wasteland,” McMurtry’s debut recording was released in 1989, when the singer, songwriter and guitarist was 27. In the meantime, he spent time studying English, tending bar, painting houses and doing a bit of singing. The time and experiences away from the stage have been put to good use; McMurtry has released another six studio albums of mostly original material, drawing on virtually all parts of his past.”Now, I realize I’ve used pieces of all my experiences,” he said. “I’ve used everything from 30 years ago. Song writing uses your entire memory to create something.”In McMurtry’s practice of the craft, song writing is just as much imagination as it is experience. Almost all of his songs, he said, involve the creation of a fictional character, to serve as the narrator of the tale. McMurtry’s stand-ins come in the forms of a cattleman, a drunk with violence on his mind, a kid looking to join the Confederate army, and a member of an extended Oklahoma family full of ne’er-do-wells. “Most of the songs take the point of view of a fictional character,” said McMurtry, the son of writer Larry McMurtry, whose novels include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” and who won a 2006 Academy Award for adapting, with Diana Ossana, the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain.” “It gives you a better chance to finish the song. If I stay in character, it seems to ring. If I had to write from my point of view, I’m not going to write at all. I’m not interested in it – I’ve already lived it.”Though fictional, those characters seem to share some traits with their creator. McMurtry’s narrators – and the songs themselves – are offbeat, unsentimental, and far more connected to America’s past than to the present. There’s a Southern sensibility to them, reflecting McMurtry’s childhood in Leesburg, Va. – a town some 40 miles from Washington, D.C., whose history dates back 300 years – and his current home of Austin, Texas, where he has lived since 1989.

Among the more recent folks McMurtry has given a voice to is the narrator of “We Can’t Make It Here,” from the 2005 album “Childish Things.” The focus of the song is a Vietnam veteran who’s getting pinched on all sides. The V.A. budget is stretched too thin to provide him with much more than a wheelchair. The mill where he used to work for a decent wage has been shut down, his job sent overseas. He now works for peanuts at Wal-Mart. And it’s not just him; the whole town is on the skids, while a CEO somewhere is lobbying to get his own tax burden reduced.McMurtry released “We Can’t Make It Here” on the Internet several months before “Childish Things” came out, in time to have it heard before the 2004 presidential election. He didn’t expect much of a reaction – he didn’t yet realize how many people use the Internet to hear music. And while he had been a critic’s favorite, McMurtry was far from a hitmaker.But the song struck a chord. The initial wave of response, he said, was a hostile one. “A lot of people had their identity wrapped up with George Bush,” noted McMurtry. But McMurtry didn’t have the current president so much in mind – “A lot of the things the narrator complains about took place under the Clinton administration,” he said. Over time, as the song got further out into the world, the reception became a lot more sympathetic. McMurtry recalls playing for a group called Veterans for Peace; afterward, a listener told him about how his family was reduced to choosing between paying for their medicine or their mortgage.”It did speak to a lot more people than I thought,” said McMurtry, who performs Monday, July 16, at Belly Up. “I’ve met a lot of people who have lived through every bit of that song.””We Can’t Make It Here,” which McMurtry sings in an appropriately downbeat voice, almost as a spoken-word recitation, earned song-of-the-year honors from the Americana Music Association; “Childish Things” took album of the year. Esquire magazine gave him an Esky Award for being music’s “biggest agitator.” McMurtry is ambivalent about the recognition. McMurtry has said, “I’ve always been a little put off by activists. So you know it’s a dire situation when I have to become one myself.” Still, the success of the song has bred more overt statements on the state of things. Currently available on McMurtry’s website is “God Bless America” – not Irving Berlin’s anthem to this great country, but a sharp rebuke of consumerism and greed. The song will be included on McMurtry’s next album, tentatively scheduled for a January release.McMurtry says “God Bless America” is “more like the political cartoon at the top of the editorial page, where ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ is more like the editorial.” He has no conscious intention to make more direct social statements. But, he added, “We’re not shying away from any stance.”

McMurtry’s typical lyric is more slippery. Even when you know what McMurtry is singing about generally, the specifics can be elusive. And with some songs, it’s good to have the writer’s input. “Childish Things,” for example, opens with “See the Elephant,” which references war, a trip to Richmond, and something secretive.McMurtry traces the song back to Col. Jeff Cooper, a late World War II vet who wrote a column for Guns & Ammo magazine. Cooper would occasionally digress from the subject of handguns to write about other topics. Among these was that when the circus came to town some decades ago, many a father took his teenage son not for the animals, but for a more sexual attraction – his first encounter with a prostitute. The euphemism, usually used in mom’s presence, was that they were “going down to see the elephant.” McMurtry became further intrigued with the phrase when his own mother told him that “seeing the elephant” also referred to a young man’s first taste of battle.McMurtry seems to possess the song-writing craft shared by a long list of Texans. And while he acknowledges the influence of Texans Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, he sees himself equally in the company of Midwesterner John Prine. In the end, McMurtry is just as interested in the performance as he is in the song.”My songs are more rock-based – bigger drums, a lot louder guitar,” he said. “They’re not really in a country form. If we had a model for our sound, it would be a lot more like [Neil Young’s] Crazy Horse.”I’ve gotten better as a guitar player and singer and record producer as I’ve gotten older. But I’m not so sure I’ve gotten better as a songwriter.”

One complaint often leveled at reggae by non-lovers of the form is that so much reggae fits into a tight, little mold of rhythm, lyrics and pot smoke.And then there is the one of a kind Lee “Scratch” Perry. Perry began his career as a worker in Jamaica’s famed Studio One before launching his own strange, sometimes brilliant, and often influential career as a producer, singer and DJ. Bob Marley took Perry’s backing band, the Upsetters, and turned it into his own Wailers; a forgiving Perry went on to produce some of Marley’s greatest songs. His influence wasn’t limited to reggae; he may have been the first to scratch vinyl records – intentionally, anyway – as a sound effect, lending hip-hop one of its trademark techniques.Known for his antics, Perry, now 71, introduced his privates as “God” for an MTV Europe audience. His show has come to be seen as much as performance art as music.Perry’s new CD, “Panic In Babylon,” is, of all things, a fairly straight-up reggae album – which qualifies as an oddity for him. The package includes a three-track bonus CD, featuring offbeat remixes by DJ Spooky and TV on the Radio.Backed by New York’s Dub Is a Weapon, Perry plays Belly Up on Thursday, July 19. Earlier that night, rapper/actor Ice-T plays his own show.Much more reggae at Belly Up: the Melodians with Yellow Wall Dub Squad (Sunday, July 15); Los Angeles’ Mystic Roots (Tuesday, July 17); the Itals, with Colorado groove band the Motet opening (Friday, July 20); Morgan Heritage (Aug. 6); rhythm section extraordinaire Sly & Robbie, with Horace Andy and Cherine Anderson (Aug. 8); and Israel Vibration with the Abyssinians (Aug. 21).

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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