STEPHEN KING has called him ‘the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation’, Rolling Stone hailed his most recent album, Complicated Game, as an "Americana masterpiece", while Voice of America declared he "writes songs filled with characters so real that you're sure they're going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes."
There is no denying that Texan singer-songwriter James McMurtry is one of the very best in the business and he and his band hit Galway, on Friday January 27 to play The Loft at Seven, Bridge Street
Ahead of his gig, McMurtry chatted with me about his music and, given that he has written searing political songs like ‘Cheney’s Toy’ and ‘We Can’t Make It Here Anymore’, I began by asking his thoughts on the impending presidency of Donald Trump.
“I’m pessimistic and angry, but not particularly surprised,” he replies. “I tour the country a lot and I didn’t see many Hillary signs through the window. I’ve kind of had a grudge against Trump for 30 years, ever since he bought the Gulf Western building in New York and ruined it, but I never dreamed he’d run for president. Most of the people out in the middle of the country didn’t know about him until he got on TV. A lot of people think Sanders would have been a better candidate but I really couldn’t judge him on a national scale. I like him just fine - he used ‘We Can’t Make it Here Anymore’ for his senate campaign back in 2006 - but I was a little bit wary about him as a president.
"This whole backlash against the establishment has been building for a long, long, time. Timothy McVeigh blew up a building in Oklahoma city in the 1990s because he didn’t like the government, so I don’t know how all this comes as such a big surprise to everybody.”
McMurtry’s 2015 album Complicated Game has been widely praised as his finest to date. It arrived seven years after his previous studio release, Just Kids, and I ask why there was such a gap; “Because for some reason my club draw held up in those years and I didn’t have to make a record,” he states matter-of-factly. “We make records now mostly to advertise tour dates, it used to be the other way round. Those days are gone, nobody has those kind of record sales anymore, so all our money comes off the road and if our draw is holding up we stay on the road and make hay while the sun shines. A couple of years ago it started to tail off and when that happens it’s time to get into the studio.”
Complicated Game was produced by CC Adcock and McMurtry has described the album as "a producer’s masterpiece", partly because his own touring commitments kept taking him away from the studio. Does he regret not being there the whole time? “No because I hated the process, I was happy to be gone,” he declares. “I do kind of regret having a sense of disconnect with the record. It’s a good record but I don’t really feel as emotionally attached to it as I was with some of my others.”
While McMurtry may not feel fully ‘emotionally attached’ to the album, many of its songs, such as ‘Copper Canteen’, ‘South Dakota’, and ‘Carlisle’s Haul’, pack a real emotional wallop with achingly true-to-life vignettes of ordinary people struggling to get by. “Mostly I get my characters from the lines and the stories from the characters,” he says of his creative process. “I find if I get a good line, with a nice rhyme and metre, and put a good groove to it, then maybe it’ll keep me up at night and I’ll finish the song. That’s how it normally is; I get the line and ask ‘Who said that?’ and then envision the character that said it, and what’s going to happen to that character.”
Given that James’s father is celebrated novelist Larry McMurtry, and that his son Curtis is also emerging as a talented songwriter, it is tempting to suggest there must be a writerly gene in the McMurtry DNA. Were any writing tips passed down from father to son?
“Nobody ever looks at the fact that my father has no writers in his ancestry so I don’t know if it was genetic exactly,” James notes, wryly. “There was very little advice about writing. Curtis and I are both trying to figure out the music business, nobody really has a handle on that right now. We get together and bounce ideas around but I wouldn’t say it is fatherly advice; I’m as much in the dark about it as he is.”
McMurtry’s Galway gig marks the launch of his European tour and he concludes our chat with his reflection on audience responses to him on this side of the pond; “The first time we went to Germany the West Germans were very silent and my drummer, who’s played there a lot said ‘Well, what’s going on is they speak pretty good English but they’re about three words behind you, they’re concentrating’ whereas it had seemed to me I wasn’t getting anything back. Then when we went to East Germany they went crazy, they didn’t understand a word we were saying but they were just so glad to have any kind of rock’n’roll. In the UK and Ireland we go down pretty well.”