James McMurtry’s songs sketch the lives of characters at the fringes of America. With caustic wit and devastating poetic economy, he measures the distance between the gated communities, and the dead-end dives with “drains in the floor.”
On his latest studio album “Childish Things,” the Texas singer-songwriter turned away from metaphorical storytelling with the blunt “We Can’t Make It Here,” one of the greatest protest songs in a generation.
On June 10, McMurtry returns to Vermont for the annual Roots on the River Festival. He and his band, the Heartless Bastards, play a set right before headliner Fred Eaglesmith.
Last Memorial Day, as he washed clothes in an Austin, Texas Laundromat and prepared to head out on tour, McMurtry talked about the record, his musical influences and songwriting style, and his thoughts on music’s role in the world.
Was there a backlash for “We Can’t Make It Here?”
Oh, instantly. I took it down to KGSR, because I knew the morning DJ would let me walk in and spin whatever. I had nasty emails on the web site before I got home from the radio station. We posted all the opinions – we had a whole forum going for a while there.
What was the consensus?
I got a lot more positive response than negative. There was one guy at a show in San Antonio actually gave me a thumbs down when I mentioned Cindy Sheehan and Camp Casey. He didn’t realize that he was surrounded by a bunch from Veterans for Peace. They’re the ones who actually ran that camp. One thing that the press missed about the whole deal is that most of the people who marched down that road with her were veterans.
Where do your songs come from?
I hear a couple of lines in my head, a melody and maybe it grows into a verse. There comes a point where I have to think, who’s telling this story? That’s where the character comes from.
How often is that character you?
Almost never – you could say they’re all part of me since I made them up, but they don’t necessarily express my opinion. It gets kind of tricky. There’s a song (“Twelve O’clock Whistle”) with a reference to “Niggertown.” That one is kind of autobiographical since it’s a phrase that came from my grandmother’s mouth. If I could have used a different word and made it work in a song I would have. But I couldn’t, and I never dreamed some idiot would put it on the radio. It’s sung in my voice, so they’re basically mad at me.
It’s a song about poison of various sorts, and part of the poison in the white world is we have grandmothers who think it’s OK to say “nigger” in front of kids. That’s how we make our racists, but you’re not gonna get that form hearing the song once, and you’re definitely not going to get it by hearing it in rush hour on a bad day.
Were you always a songwriter?
I tried to write prose, but it’s a chore for me. My mother taught me to play guitar. I started writing songs about ten years after. I had to write a bit of prose in school growing up, every now and then I spit out a page or two … I listened to a lot of songs, but I didn’t read a lot of books.
What songwriters attracted you?
I listened to Johnny Cash, when I was a young child, at some point someone turned me on to Kris Kristofferson and that’s the first one I recognized as a songwriter. He had that Rhodes scholar verse craft.
Does music have the power to change things, move them forward?
No, songwriters just illuminate. “We Can’t Make It Here” has gotten more attention than anything I’ve ever put on a CD. It’s not by virtue of it being a great song, I just happened to write something people were already thinking. It gave them a place to put what they were feeling about it. You might write something people maybe missed – if you’re lucky.