Wednesday, September 21, 2011

James McMurtry Shares Your Pain

Stirring songs give anger an outlet


By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer

James McMurtry will appear at Whiskey Jacques’ in Ketchum, Saturday, Sept. 24. Courtesy photo.

James McMurtry appears to be a pretty laid-back guy. Despite having a protest song declared one of the best in the decade, an album named best of the year, a last name linked to a legendary author, and a publicist, he freely gives out his phone number.

"He's very informal," his publicist, Cary Baker said. "We don't even schedule interviews. Just call him."

One could equate that to the hunger of a starting artist willing to forgo any ego boost to get to unfettered stardom. But he's not new to the scene. His first release in 1989 was a cassette tape.

Reached on a San Luis Obispo hotel stopover, at least an hour too early for him Wednesday morning, he said simply, "We have to get press wherever we go. It's easier this way. ... Besides, if I scheduled an interview, I'd probably forget it."

It's not that he doesn't intend to be heard, but rather than spend too much time trying to explain himself to a reporter, he seems intent on using his voice where he is most comfortable, in an intimate setting with an audience that may feel as disgruntled as he is about the state of things.

And it's about those things that he's neither laid back nor unorganized. The thoughts conveyed in his multi-award-winning, working-class anthem, "We Can't Make It Here," certainly sets the tone for a lot of the kinds of people who will clamor for unusually affordable tickets to see him Saturday, Sept. 24, at Whiskey Jacques':

"Some have maxed out all their credit cards.

Some are working two jobs and living in cars.

Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink.

If you gotta have proof just try it yourself, Mr. CEO.

See how far five 15 an hour will go.

Take a part-time job at one of your stores.

Bet you can't make it here anymore."

McMurtry's music was getting him famous during the early 2000s. Critics were calling him the best songwriter in America, novelist Stephen King regularly encouraged readers of Entertainment Weekly to convert and others declared he'd written the best protest song since Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."

Still, he had to drop Heartless Bastards from his band name because "there's a group in Ohio with that name and they got bigger than us."

"Childish Things," from 2005, with "We Can't Make It Here" as its centerpiece, was not overtly political, he said, though it included direct criticism of George W. Bush, the Iraq War and Walmart.

"But I was kind of feeling powerless because I usually vote Democrat and it wasn't meaning much. The only power I had was a record deal. I generally shy away from a sermon, but I noticed other people doing it really well and I guess I got lucky."

"Will work for food

Will die for oil.

Will kill for power and to us the spoils.

The billionaires get to pay less tax.

The working poor get to fall through the cracks.

Let 'em eat jellybeans, let 'em eat cake.

Let 'em s---, whatever it takes.

They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps

If they can't make it here anymore."

Famed music critic Robert Christgau ranked the song the best of the 2000s, and McMurtry was no longer feeling helpless.

He followed it with more songs like "Cheney's Toy" but also songs like "Peter Pan," about lessons learned while growing up in a broken family, having and losing a wife, and the acknowledgment of things Mom said being true after becoming a parent himself.

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Both "Childish Things" and "Live in Aught-Three" were reissued in February when McMurtry and his now nameless band hit the road. Based in Austin, he was here this summer at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival. He's currently making his way along the West Coast to Seattle and then over to Ketchum.

"Mountain states are good for us because people get up and move, and we like that," he said.

His is timely stuff as last week's Idaho Statesmen reported 70,000 Idahoans out of work.

"In Dayton, Ohio, or Portland, Maine,

Or a cotton gin out on the great high plains

That's done closed down along with the school

And the hospital and the swimming pool.

Dust devils dance in the noonday heat.

There's rats in the alley

And trash in the street,

Gang graffiti on a boxcar door.

We can't make it here anymore."

McMurtry said the newest tune is his repertoire is more "goofy," and that he's got more in him.

"I'd like to have a bigger song someday. In the Americana genre, it [We Can't Make It Here] is a little bitty piece of the pie. There's still plenty of room for growth here."

McMurtry's hard-edged character sketches come, in part, from genetics. He's the son of an English professor mother and a father whose collection of rare books and his own pennings, including "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment," made him a folk hero.

McMurtry got his first guitar at the age of 7 from the dad he calls Larry, picked up a few chords taught him by his mother and gravitated toward putting his thoughts into lyrics.

McMurtry continued quietly gaining strength by watching others and by ear. He dropped out of the University of Arizona in Tucson to pursue the music that people seemed to enjoy in the college beer garden where he played.

Though his parents and now even he wish he'd stayed in school, he said, "Academia was a small town I wanted to get out of." He said that if he went back to school now, instead of studying English and Spanish again, he would choose religion and business, "because that's what seems to drive the world right now. I thought we would have grown out of the religion thing by now."

He's been a painter, actor, bartender and sometime singer. By 1987, he was started to emerge with an opportunity with John Mellencamp that led to inclusion of a song on the movie soundtrack "Falling From Grace" and participation in a "supergroup" that included Mellencamp, John Prine, Joe Ely and Dwight Yoakam called Buzzin' Cousins.

Though his father has always been supportive, he's never interfered.

"He knows a little bit about business, but he doesn't know verse."

McMurtry seems similarly poised with his own son, who is in his 20s in Yonkers, N.Y., studying music, allowing him the space to determine his path.

"He knows how to read and score and all that," he said. "He's a better bandleader, he can be heard and still see the big picture. He's into odd instrumentation, unorthodox approaches. I don't think he has a future (playing) with me, I just hope he's smart enough to find a way to stay off the road, there's just not as much mailbox money as there used to be."

But at the rate America is going this decade, it's almost certain that McMurtry's voice will continue to provide the background music for years to come.

"Whenever the offers stop, we'll stop, but they've been coming pretty steady for a while now."

Right now, all McMurtry wants is for people to know that even though President Obama has been a disappointment, and is not nearly "the socialist I expected him to be," a little-known bright spot in the administration's overhaul of the health-care system has been the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan.

At a recent Screenactors Guild meeting, the topic was how to insure "all these starving artists so that people like me, in their 50s, self-employed with a pre-existing condition [that he won't disclose] can be taken care of. I found out there are 700,000 eligible citizens who qualify, but 300 are signed up because no one is talking about it. We are so afraid of evil socialized medicine, and we would rather talk about war. We think we can afford war, but war is expensive and it keeps a few people filthy rich."

Jennifer Liebrum: jliebrum@mtexpress.com




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