James McMurtry: Interview and Show Review
Toss out the name James McMurtry and you’ll definitely get some sort of reaction. Often people immediately bring up his songwriting, other times maybe it’s his famous father, or they’ll tell you which song their favorite is (“Choctaw Bingo” happens to be a popular answer). So, it was no surprise to me that on a Sunday evening at the Mercury Lounge that James McMurtry drew in a sizeable, mixed crowd. The age range tended towards those 50+, but there were some younger fans there as well. It’s been at least since 2015 that I’ve personally seen James play in Tulsa. Once he was on stage, he confirmed the fact he hasn’t played Tulsa for some time. Wearing a simple button-down shirt, jeans and his signature hat perched on a mop of curly hair, McMurtry’s set was no-nonsense right from the start. Having spoken to James earlier in the week for an interview, I couldn’t help but notice that’s how he spoke as well. Only the facts are presented, some of those facts may be expounded on slightly, but James is not one to mince words, not in an interview and certainly not in his songs. He gives you exactly what he thinks you should know, or need in a song to connect to it, nothing more, nothing less.
The set started off with the song, “Bayou Tortous” off the 2008 album, Just Us Kids and was followed by, “Red Dress” off of Saint Mary of the Woods. There’s not much chatter between sets. McMurtry is methodical in his approach, a few words about the song and then launching immediately into it. At times there is eye contact with those in the audience. An intense stare of someone who is sizing you up as they sing. A trio of chatty concert goers is on the receiving end of an icy look later on in the set. At first the band briefly quieted down, McMurtry went solo, then as the talking continued, he stopped altogether until someone elbowed one of the offenders and told them to be quiet. A long piercing stare and he begins again. Singing the songs he’s sung thousands of times in his career, seemingly as intense every night in every new town they’re playing.
McMurtry’s songs are chock full of characters, whether it’s the weary couple in “Copper Canteen” or the slew of family members headed to a reunion in “Choctaw Bingo.” The way the characters are imagined and crafted, with small details that make them stand out and become believable and allow the listener to connect to them, is a true gift. On this night, “Choctaw Bingo” lasted well past the ten minute mark and many of the audience members were near yelling the lyrics. In stark contrast, an older woman sat on the speakers in front of the stage, intent on capturing every detail and every note of the concert on her phone.
As the night wore on, songs were played, band members introduced, and the balmy June air was full of the sound of electric guitar and the timeless lyrics.
Previous to the concert, I had the honor of speaking to James McMurtry on the phone. We touched on his songwriting process, his feelings on how those attending live shows have changed and a few young songwriters that he’s impressed with.
Since your fan base varies, do you ever feel as an artist that it’s tough to sing about subjects that they might not agree with?
No, that’s my job. Sometimes that means my songs are a social commentary, but you’ve got to write those songs and talk about what’s important and what is going on in this world. I once had a lady, I think it was in Plano and she was dancing down in front of the stage with a sign that said, “Leave Politics out of Music.” I can’t do that, I write about what I see and what’s going on right now.
Do you feel like it’s the responsibility of all artists to touch on subjects that their fans might not agree with?
I can’t say what other musicians should do. I just know that someone has to say what isn’t always popular. People like Woody Guthrie.
Or Pete Seeger?
Yes, or like Pete. Singing about subjects that weren’t popular or that made people uncomfortable. People want to belong these days, right now the globe is so connected and people are feeling mixed up and like they don’t have an identity. Whether that’s feeling like part of a group or a nation or a culture, people want to feel like they are part of something, and that feeling of being a nationalist has paved the way for some of the things we’re seeing today.
That’s true even for something like motorcycles. Harley Davidson sells more of their merchandise these days rather than bikes. Why? Because people want to identify with being part of a group.
What impact do you hope your music has on people? Whether they are a fan of yours or not?
I want people to connect with it, I want them to hear something in the song and to be able to identify with it. If they don’t connect with the song, then they’re not truly going to listen to it or hear what the song is about.
You have a vast catalog of songs that you’ve written, are there any that stick out to you? That you really love this character the most?
I have a few. Rachel is the one that comes to mind first. Or maybe even Ruby and Carlos.
Speaking of songwriting, your name is always tossed out when people are talking about best songwriters of this time, do you embrace that title? Do you feel like it’s the truth?
It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth. You just go out and do your job. You wake up every day and sing the music and it doesn’t matter what titles someone gives you.
Are there any up and coming artists that you’ve been impressed with? Not just songwriting, even their work ethic or what they’re doing on a day to day basis?
Jason Isbell…and there’s another artist, I think based out of Stillwater. Oh, I can’t remember his name right now...John...
Year. That’s him. He’s great. I once heard him playing when I was in the gallery of the Continental and I thought, he’s going to make a lot of money. This is before he was really playing on the piano a lot. It was just him and his guitar.
I know you’ve had a long time Wednesday night gig at the Continental, do you feel like people talking during concerts has gotten worse? Do you experience that a lot or no?
Yes, it’s gotten worse for sure. Used to, people would come in a place like that, out of towners, just visiting and want to go to one of these places and discover new music. Now, people don’t even know what the place is, they come in and they’re sitting there, but they are on their phone. They’re not even present, they are, but they aren’t, because they’re sharing this experience on their phone with others, but not even really participating in the moment themselves. Sometimes when people won’t stop talking, you want to tell them to shut the fuck up, but that doesn’t seem to work that well
Did you try that and it failed miserably?
Oh yeah, I don’t mind telling someone that, but I’ve found now it’s best to just go acoustic and play really quiet and see if they get the hint, if they don’t, you just stop and look at them and they’ll usually finally understand or else someone will tell them. I had a group the other night though that just would not stop talking. Finally they cleared out and took the hint.
So as someone who has toured Europe, do you feel like the crowds are better there about not talking?
Well, the show feels much more intense and maybe not always in a good way. They aren’t talking, but they’re just staring at you. I finally realized after talking to someone else that has toured there more than I had, that even though almost everyone in Europe speaking English, it’s often not their first language, so they are concentrating on what you’re saying, because they are often three or four words behind what you’re singing. Germany wasn’t like that when East and West Germany were still divided. A show in West Germany you could hear a pin drop, but it was completely different in East Germany because they were controlled by Russia and that sort of music had been banned for so long. They got rowdy, mainly because they loved any sort of rock and roll music and they didn’t care what was being said, they just wanted to hear it being played.
I see that you’re touring a lot, you obviously have a show coming up in Tulsa on Sunday, what helps pass all those long hours in the van? Are you guys listening to new music? Are you taking that time to songwriter?
I do most of the driving duty. It’s usually me and one other person taking turns driving, so I like going down new roads or driving new ways from time to time and finding things I haven’t seen before. Even though I could never be a farmer or even want to be a farmer, I like watching to see what they’re harvesting or what’s growing right now. Touring is different now. We’re in a lot of places now that there used to not even be a venue. There was a place in the west, I think maybe in Montana, where we couldn’t even charge fifty cents for a cover, because people would take that and use it to drink at a bar down the road, they weren’t going to pay a cover charge to hear us sing. Now, in those same places, we’re even getting a guarantee.
If you’re interested in catching James McMurtry this summer, he’s cutting a swath across the US and hitting a wide variety of venues. Find his tour schedule here: highroadtouring.com/artists/james-mcmurtry