James McMurty offers truth in songwriting

James McMurtry's recording career launched in 1989 with the excellent roots-rock offering Too Long in the Wasteland. John Mellencamp, who discovered McMurtry, produced the disc and got his protégé signed to Columbia. Wasteland contains the single "Painting by Numbers," a catchy heartland pop tune with a deliciously cynical lyric that borders on nihilism. "You might get to thinking you're ahead of the game," McMurtry deadpans. "But when you break it all down, it all comes out the same." The song reached No. 33 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks survey. Not bad - but not great, especially by major label standards. McMurtry would release two more full-lengths on Columbia before being handed a pink slip after 1995's Where'd You Hide the Body.

Like so many singer/songwriters whose music is - to be blunt - too damn smart and literate for widespread consumption, McMurtry re-emerged as a star on the Americana scene when he signed with venerable independent label Sugar Hill for 1997's It Had to Happen. He's spent the past decade in the indie ranks, a big fish in a small pond, as they say. When I ask artists in his position if they prefer the smaller labels to the behemoths, I usually receive a stock answer about how he or she enjoys the artistic freedom, personalized attention et al offered by the boutique imprints. Not McMurtry. "You always want to be on the majors," he says dryly. "But majors aren't signing people like me. They're signing American Idols.

"The majors, they got more money, more infrastructure, they're their own machine. With them, you're gonna get on Letterman. You might not make out financially initially. But you'll ultimately make more headway if you work hard. When I was on Columbia, you come into town, people know you're coming."

That candor comes through in McMurty's detailed character sketches. The somber title track to Just Us Kids opens with the lines: "I've had enough of this small town bullshit/ I'm not stayin' in school/ I'm makin' good dough workin' with my brother/ Cleanin' out pools." The song sympathetically chronicles a couple buddies' progression from young, wild hell-raisers to middle-aged men relegated to reliving their glory days over cans of beer. "Just us kids hangin' out today," McMurtry sings wistfully. "Watchin' our long hair turnin' gray."

The song takes its inspiration from McMurty observing the behavior of his teenage son. "I typically come up with a couple lines and melody and eventually come up with a character that says those lines," McMurtry explains. "I had some lines and noticed my son and all his friends, none care about automobiles the way my friends did. We saw them as freedom and forms of self-expression. They just see cars as means of getting round.

"With any song, if it's cool enough to keep me up at night, I finish the song," McMurtry continues. "Having a preconceived idea about what you want to say is a good way to kill a song. That's why political songs are tricky; sometimes a song doesn't want to say what you set out to say."

Political songs can also be misinterpreted. McMurtry learned that lesson the hard way with "Cheney's Toy," one of several politically charged numbers on Just Us Kids. Anyone who listens to the lyrics and has occasionally perused the newspaper during the past eight years should most certainly ascertain that the titular toy is Dubya - not one of our young men or women risking his or her limbs and life in Iraq or Afghanistan. The songwriter has stopped performing the gripping protest number, though, due to listeners being offended by an anti-soldier message that he's clearly not making. "In that particular case, it was frustrating," McMurtry says. "In general, it's very easy for political songs to become sermons. You get known for that and no one listens. You have to be careful."

James McMurtry: "Choctaw Bingo (live)"

James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards w/Ronny Elliott Band, 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 5, Skipper's Smokehouse, Tampa, $17 advanced, $20 door. Photo Craig Seth.

James McMurtry might not be a name on par with, say, fellow Texans Lyle Lovett or Steve Earle, but the singer/songwriter and bad-ass guitarist is still a revered act in the Americana world. McCurtry's latest album, the outstandingly incendiary, darkly humorous, wonderfully emotive and rustically rocking Just Us Kids, has garnered glowing write-ups in glossies such as Blender, Mojo and Entertainment Weekly, the latter of which showered the disc with superlatives like "brilliant," "hilarious" and "poignant" in giving it an A- grade. Just Us Kids is selling, too. It has reached a very respectable No. 18 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart.

So it's surprising when I'm given McMurtry's mobile phone number and instructed to ring him in the afternoon. Any afternoon. Easy as that, the PR person says. But I'm skeptical. Usually when dealing with an artist of McMurtry's status there's a set time, date and minute count to which, you, the interviewer, are supposed to stick. Twenty minutes is the norm.

I dial the digits and hear a gruff "hello" that could only be James McMurtry's. "Give me a moment to pull over," he says. "I've got a manual transmission." He steers his automobile into a nearby parking lot to grant an interview on a recent Tuesday afternoon. McMurtry has been driving around his hometown of Austin, running the same mundane errands you or I might conduct on an off day. He good-naturedly refers to the interview as just another duty after I apologize for interrupting his daily routine.

The Americana music icon speaks slowly. His voice is deep. His answers are straightforward and marked by an economy of words - and a drawl that reflects both his native Virginia and decades spent in the Lone Star State. You get the sense he's incapable of feeding you bullshit, and it's the same way with his music. Whether recounting the machinations of a crystal meth cooker in the fan favorite "Choctaw Bingo," or telling me how his world-famous father Larry McMurtry's one shortcoming as a novelist/screenwriter is that "he always gets firearms wrong," the younger McMurtry's words smack of integrity.

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