James McMurtry is a much-respected artist who has largely existed below the commercial radar of commercial media since his debut release back in 1989. With 11 releases to his name this singer-songwriter has continued to endure where many have failed. McMurtry comes across as a deep thinker and someone who chooses his words carefully. He appears as a shy man with natural humility but also possessing a healthy sense of irony. His music is a testament to the sharp mind that surveys all before it and is well attuned to the ways of the world. He spoke to Lonesome Highway prior to his show in Whelan's in Dublin (January 2017).
Is live touring something that you enjoy?
Yea, it’s most of my job really. We don’t get any money from record sales anymore, it’s all road.
When you getting ready to start an album, do you first look for a record deal or do you record and then look for a label?
I’ve done it all different ways. I usually decide to make a record and look for financing to get it done. To find a label that can licence the record in different territories but I haven’t done enough of that in Europe in the past 20 years. It is always scary coming to Europe because of the overhead. We are at the age where we don’t share hotel rooms anymore or sleep on the floor; each of us has to have his own room nowadays. But on this tour we got some beer sponsorship which helps to not lose money.
So, is touring really profitable anymore?
We get most of our profit in the States. Used to be where we toured to promote record sales and expected to lose money on the tour; now it’s the other way around where we put out a record so that you guys will write about us and we can get people in the clubs to come out and support the tour.
You have been touring you last album Complicated Games and are now bringing it to Europe.
I’m over here because I’ve run out of territory in the States. You can only go back to a market very 12 or 18 months and we have been around twice on this last record so we can’t really tour as a sole headline there again until 2018. All the work we are doing there right now is package or solo fly-out stuff or co-bills with other acts that are in the same State and the same situation. So, between the two of us we can draw a bigger crowd or play a bigger venue. We just did some dates on the West Coast with Anders Osborne and that turned out really well. Sometimes those tours can be pretty disastrous but this time we were pretty lucky.
I was noticing your comments regarding Napster and Spotify and touring to promote the sales of your records. Can the artist even get paid anymore?
If it is even downloaded of your label’s site the royalty is still a lot less than it was with the hard product. Fortunately, our crowd are about the same age so our people want to buy hard products.
It is always better to get the physical product from the point of view of information about the release. Our website works on the basis of physical product only. Is life becoming more complicated as a result?
I don’t know. We just keep going down the road and this is the only thing we know. My son is just releasing his second record and people ask if I give him advice. We get together and try to figure out where this thing is going. He knows about as much as I do.
When you write in character do you have to imagine that character?
I try to imagine the character and follow the words in rhyme and metre ‘cause that is how it starts – with a couple of lines and then you try to imagine the character who said those lines. And you get a story – it might take awhile but you get a verse and chorus structure going and the song builds itself. The template is carved. Several songs just started out as jams as putting lyrics to existing music can be really hard. St Mary of the Woods started out like that.
Does the song-writing get easier as you get older?
No. But it doesn’t get any harder either. You can leave a lot to the listener because it is verse, it doesn’t have to be that detailed.
Is what is happening worldwide an influence on the characters that you are writing?
A lot of my characters are dated and the songs are dated. I put a song out on the website (Remembrance), just before the election and it’ s not about Trump per se; but about demagoguery in general, mostly focused on Franco as I was in Spain just after Franco passed and I lived with a family where they wanted Franco back out of the grave and didn’t want this Democracy stuff that required thought...
And yet when you recall the songs ‘We can’t make it here’ and Cheney’s Toy’ which dealt with the Bush administration, you could almost cut & paste them onto the situation that we are now facing
It never seems to change. I sang that song (Cheney’s Toy), during the first Obama administration too and I finally just got tired of it and quit playing it.
The critical reaction to Complicated Game was very positive. Were you happy with the media response as it had been some time since the previous release?
We did not have to make another record for economic purposes as the previous one held up for so long. It was really unusual. Already this latest one has fallen off so we need to get back in the studio and make another one.
Do you play with the same guys all the time?
Pretty much so. Tim (Holt) and Daren (Hess) have been in the band for 18 years while Cornbread has been with me for about the last 5 years.
Do you still have the residency in the Continental Club?
We have been doing that since 2002 and we do it whenever we are home. It starts at midnight and goes until 2.00am.
The Outlaw Country stance against the traditional sound of Nashville. Is that something that impacts on you living in Texas?
When I hear outlaw country I think of Waylon Jennings. That started so long ago and they are still calling it that but I no idea what they are talkin’ about. They have this thing called Americana which is a catchall for all of us who were having a hard time getting on rock radio and we couldn’t get on mainstream country radio.
Do genres annoy you?
Not really. If I can squeeze into something then people can find my records and buy them. It’s becoming what AAA became, which was what AOR was. Now we are getting the Bonnie Raitt’s and Robert Plant as Americana artists.
Does You Tube open up avenues to your music?
I don’t know because I don’t really go to You Tube very often. I dread to think what some of my clips may be like...!
Perhaps it opens up some traffic to your website?
I don’t know as I don’t monitor the demographics. If we have money in the accounts, then we can do stuff and that is ok with me.
Do you plan to go back in the studio soon?
If I have enough songs. I was going to go to California for the next record and have Ross Hogarth produce as he seems interested. He recorded my first two records and mixed the first one that I produced; St Mary of the Woods.
Do you enjoy the studio experience?
It can be tedious. I have done records where the producer wanted an insane number of takes- like on ‘Lost in the Back-yard’ where we did maybe 20 takes and the drummer nearly lost his mind – funnily, it was the “drummer loses his mind” take that made the song...!! You don’t know how you’re gonna get it but usually I like to get it done quickly...
Can we expect a broadside against Trump?
I don’t think he deserves that much attention. He is just another of many dime-store demagogues who happened to come along at the right time and sell it to Americans. 30 years ago, there was a guy called Lyndon LaRouche who ran as an independent in the Mondale/Reagan race and was saying the same thing - but back then, the world was different and there was no NAFTA and there were no manufacturing job losses. Ideas that Trump is spouting now could find no purchase. 9/11 happened and all this paranoia – suspicion of anything other... It is real easy to get people to focus their fear and hatred against an ethnic or racial/ religious group.
The message into Europe from other American artists seems to be one of community and looking to bring people together
My cousins all live out in the country and they live in a different reality. I was turkey hunting with them one time; during the Florida recount when Bush was losing the election to Gore and they were perturbed that Gore was trying to steal the election from Bush. The same with Reagan was running, the academics and the people I hung out with, did not think he had a chance whereas you talked to a country person they were all solid Reagan lovers.
Do you find the creative process one of isolation?
I don’t mess with it much. If I get a line out of somewhere, I put it on my cell phone. The creative process is very brief. I don’t spend a lot of time creating.
Do you do a lot of reading or research?
I read one or two books a year usually. I’m not a big reader.
You have been quoted as saying that you ‘write with a poet’s pen and a painter’s precision’. While another quote is that you don’t really make a conscious decision what you write about. Is the reality somewhere between?
Well you can write a song that completely expresses another opinion than your own. A lot of my songs do because my characters do not necessarily agree with me. If you listen to Carlisle’s Hall that guy is complaining about Government regulation of fisheries. Of course he is, because he is a commercial fisherman and that is how he makes his living. I don’t think that way; I think that we have to regulate fisheries or we are not going to have them. But I’m not trying to haul my living out of a bay.
Is the glass half full of half empty?
Townes Van Zandt said that some folks look at a glass and think it’s half empty; some folks look at a glass and think it’s half full; I look at a glass and wonder if its water or vodka.
Interview by Paul McGee and Stephen Rapid Photographs by Stephen Rapid and Kaethe Burt O'Dea