Wednesday, August 02, 2006

James McMurtry, Dirty Linen

Fun guy, and one of the best live performers around.

IOTA gets a cameo in this story. The other club alluded to--where dancing is illegal--is also local. It's not the Birchmere, which is famous for its Quiet Please! policy.

From Dirty Linen #122 (Feb/Mar 2006)

James McMurtry
Looking for Action
by Pamela Murray Winters

James McMurtry is always looking for action.

He got some in late October, at IOTA Club & CafĂ© in Arlington, Virginia. The small room was chockablock with revelers of all sorts: Among those shaking their tail feathers at the foot of the stage were a pacifist Quaker; an Israeli tourist waving a sign identifying himself, in a quote from McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo,” as a “bad-ass Hebrew”; and an off-duty waitress from a nearby music venue best described as a “listening room.”

Listening rooms are impossible,” McMurtry declared later, in a post-show interview in the club’s basement office. He then went on to tell a story about a venue that had tented signs on its tables requesting that the audience remain quiet. “I made a paper airplane out of one of those table tents. And then I told them, ‘If somebody doesn’t dance, the fire marshal’s gonna come shut this place down.’ And they got up and started dancing.”

When he went to settle up, he said, he was met by a peeved manager. “He said, ‘I’m not happy.’ I said, ‘Why not? People seemed to be having a good time.’ He said ‘I think you know why I’m not happy.’ I said, ‘Oh, the paper airplane, and the fire marshal…Oh, I get it — you’re runnin’ a church, not a bar! I’ve violated your doctrine!’ ”

Try the devil’s-advocate routine, insist that with lyrics like the ones McMurtry pens — especially now that he’s a “political singer” (about which, more later) — people should be able to hear them, and you’ll get a retort like this one: “Listen to the record, man. A live show is about movement. Music is kinetic, to me. There are some songs that are not meant for dancing, and most people won’t. They’ll sit there and listen. It’ll get quiet; they’ll be able to hear.

If you wanna get down front and center, move. Dance. ’Cause that’s what front and center is for.”

McMurtry, now approaching his mid-40s, has thought long and hard about this stuff. And about a lot of other stuff. And he’s not shy about telling you what he thinks. A soft-spoken man, he doesn’t do the hail-fellow-well-met routine. Accounts of other interviews suggest a difficult artist, possibly a taciturn interviewee. In fact, he’s exacting, impassioned without histrionics, and funny in a very, very dry way.

Gracious, too, to sit down for an interview after he and his band had done 20 shows in 20 nights, a record for him.

The story has often been told that McMurtry’s father, novelist Larry McMurtry, helped him in the biz by giving his tape to John Mellencamp, who got him signed to Columbia. “Columbia worked it pretty hard, and it got to 30 on the Billboard charts,” McMurtry recalled of his debut, 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland. And then what? “I thought I’d get a lot bigger off of that. I was convinced that I’d be different, that I wouldn’t be like the thousands of people who got signed that year and wound up getting dropped three years later, which is what did happen.

But in the long run, it’s better, ’cause if I had succeeded with that first record, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to get good at this. I wouldn’t have had to, really. I was a pretty good writer, but I wasn’t much of a performer. I was an okay acoustic guitar player, but I couldn’t do anything with a Telecaster. I’ve had to learn all that because as the budget shrank, I had to do more of it myself. It got where if I wanted electric guitar in my live shows, I was gonna have to play it myself. That was difficult, because I knew I was gonna suck for a while.”

Asked the inevitable — “When did you stop sucking?” — he deadpanned, “I still have occasional suckage, but for the most part I got my suckin’ done a few years ago.”

And how. The critical acclaim and fan following he’s garnered over the last decade and a half has reached a new height with 2005’s Childish Things. He’s probably getting more press than ever as well, a lot of it courtesy of a song called “We Can’t Make It Here.”

The song moves deftly, cinematically, through images of America’s disabled, disenfranchised, dispirited, and ultimately it points a finger at a perpetrator:

And that’s how it is

That’s what we got

If the president wants to admit it or not

You can read it in the paper

Read it on the wall

Hear it on the wind

If you’re listening at all

Get out of that limo

Look us in the eye

Call us on the cell phone

Tell us all why…

I put it out as a free download about a week before the [2004] presidential election,” McMurtry said of the song, “because I was trying to get something out there that might influence somebody’s thinking. And nobody else seemed to be doing it except Steve Earle. And Steve Earle got a whole record out before the election. I thought, well, I could at least try one song.

I had to get over my fear of letting my own politics drag my art down. ’Cause a lot of people do. But I had to risk it, because I really don’t like the direction this administration’s trying to take us in… The war. Their use of fear to control the masses. I don’t like that. It’s not just the administration; it’s the whole country. We allowed that to happen.”

So he got mad. Mad enough that he now contributes to a blog on (Replied one reader, named Todd, in response to a McMurtry diatribe on the president’s speech on a possible flu pandemic: “You are one pissed-off dude. I knew I liked you.”) Mad enough that he developed his first overtly political song after seeing a vet in a wheelchair on a street corner.

I was vocal about [politics] personally, but I kept them out of my songs because I was afraid to — I was afraid I’d wind up writing sermons. So I didn’t really try, and I should have. A lot of people should have. That’s kind of what got us in the mess we're in.

I don’t know if a song itself would have made a difference, but if everybody, not just songwriters, was more involved in politics, paid more attention — vote on referendums, vote on propositions, whatever. We can’t afford to stay out of it anymore. We got used to things being fairly normal. My parents weren’t particularly active; they voted in presidential elections, and that was about it. And we got by with that for a long time, but now it’s gotten so weird, we’ve gotta stay on top of it.”

In the case of “We Can’t Make It Here,” a single song may have made a difference. In August 2005, McMurtry played the song in Dallas at the national meeting of Veterans for Peace, which was attended by a mother whose son had been killed in the war. Cindy Sheehan, said McMurtry, “decided then to go down to Crawford the next day. And the veterans sent a platoon down there with her.”

He was plenty riled up about the media coverage of Sheehan and her Camp Casey compatriots. “The press referred to them as placard-wielding anti-war activists, but they didn’t note that they were also veterans, for the most part… The press could get their minds around ‘grieving mom,’ but they couldn’t get their minds around ‘vet for peace.’ They didn’t want to deal with that. It didn’t fall into an easy slot.”

Of course, writers often simplify things for the sake of a story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. McMurtry’s no fan of that sort of corner-cutting: “I put stuff in my songs all the time, [for which] nobody’s gonna know what the hell I’m talking about.”He cited Childish Things’ “See the Elephant,” a song which had its genesis in a firearms magazine. “On the back page of Guns and Ammo, there’s a writer by the name of Jeff Cooper — Colonel Jeff Cooper — and sometimes he will digress from firearms and just write about things he’s seen that he doesn’t see anymore. He’s been around for a while — he’s a World War II vet, I think. He said ‘see the elephant’ was a euphemism for a first sex act with a prostitute. Before World War II, when the country was a lot more rural. So it has that meaning.

My mother also said that during the Civil War, in the Army of Northern Virginia, ‘see the elephant’ meant your first taste of battle. I didn’t know that when I wrote the song. I just had a kid that, he wants to go get some action, he’s sick of working on the farm, and there might be a war, he doesn’t want to go to war without seeing the elephant.”

Sometimes an elephant’s just an elephant. Or is it? Another song from Childish Things, “Memorial Day,” came in for criticism from The Village Voice, which called it “a hokey apple-pie anthem.”

It’s from the point of view of a kid in the 60s,” McMurtry patiently explained, “going to a ghastly family gathering at a time when Memorial Day for most Americans, despite the war going on, it was thought of as another three-day weekend — gotta go see Grandma. It’s just sort of a timepiece. It’s not really meant to be antipatriotic or patriotic, either. It’s just the story.”

Well, maybe. But there’s a hint of social commentary in McMurtry’s description of the song, if not in the song itself. And “Holiday,” which closes the album, ties together McMurtry’s themes of local nostalgia and global political awareness with an image of an Iowa National Guard member at an airport:

The place sure looked different in 1968

When he travelled with Mom, first time on a plane

To visit some kin, he's forgotten their names

But he remembers the soldiers, still in
their teens

In their spit-polished shoes and those
pressed army greens

With the creases so sharp and their faces so smooth

But their eyes looked so heavy he wondered how they could move

Now he's got that same look, like his insides are black

He's in his mid-forties and he has
to go back

McMurtry said that “very, very little” autobiography sneaks into his songs. The fellow whose lyrics are populated by large, extended families is an only child. Born in Texas, he spent some of his growing-up years in Waterford, Virginia, near Leesburg. He went to college in Arizona for a time but ultimately returned to Texas.

It seemed like in the East,” he noted, “people would get educated just for the hell of it. People go to school, go to grad school as an activity, as something to feed their minds as much as anything else. In the West, people go to school to learn a trade, basically. Even if you’re majoring in English — I majored in English, and my cousins would say, ‘Are you going to be a teacher?’ Because that’s what English majors did; that’s what you could actually apply that to. I’d say, ‘Naw, I’m just doing it because I don’t know what else to study right now. Maybe I’ll figure it out later.’ ”

And he did, with album after album and a growing reputation for his literate, energetic songs. He’s not prolific: “I write when I have to make a record, pretty much.” Often he puts songs together “out of the scraps I’ve collected over the years...Sometimes I’ll scan through my computer files and sing things in my head and think, ‘Maybe that goes with that’ and start moving pieces around.

A whole song can change on a rhyme. And that’s okay. You gotta give a song its head. I think that was probably what I did wrong with the other political songs I was trying to write — I didn’t let the song find itself. That’s what’ll happen sometimes if you try to put your idea across through a song. You’ll start forcing it, and sometimes you can’t do that.”

You can’t even always agree with everything expressed in it. “The songs’ll turn on you,” he said. “They’ll make you look like a Nazi sometimes.” He recalled a song called “Safe Side,” about “a tight-assed Anglo tourist going to Mexico and being scared out of his mind.” He must have embodied the character too well, because, he says, “Tish Hinojosa said, ‘I’ve got some friends down in the valley that want to know what the hell you mean by that.’ I said I meant I needed one song for the record to be done, so I sat down and started writing, and that’s what I got.”

He’s not oblivious to the power of words — all the more reason why there are some of his songs that he doesn’t want radio programmers to play. One is “12 O’Clock Whistle,” off 1997’s It Had To Happen.

I got in trouble with ‘12 O’Clock Whistle’ because there’s a reference to ‘nigger town.’ And some idiot would play it on the radio! So imagine that you’re black and you’re driving through Dayton, Ohio, and it’s rush hour, and you hear ‘la-la-la-nigger-la—’ And you call the radio station, pissed off, and you get some white guy going... ” Here, he affected what can only be termed a pompous Yankee voice: “ ‘Well, in the context of the song, sir…’ Fuck that. Don’t put it on the radio. No. No. Don’t put that on the radio. I had no idea some moron would do that.

I had [other DJs], like in East Texas, playing it because they thought, ‘Oh, great, we don’t have to be politically correct anymore.’ Yes, you do. It’s not so much ‘politically correct’ as you gotta be polite. And you don’t throw that word around on the radio. If another word would have worked in the song, I’d have used it. But that was kind of autobiographical; it was straight out of my grandmother’s mouth. Which was what the song was about. It wasn’t so much about race relations as about poison of various sorts. The way we poison our kids in the white world is we had grandmothers that thought it was okay to say ‘nigger’ in front of the kids. But you’re not gonna get that driving through Dayton at rush hour.”

With such complexities in his music throughout his career, it’s surprising that people are so shocked by the overt political turn his music has recently taken. On his website, one fan reacted to “We Can’t Make It Here” as follows: “James you lost my respect. Every time I pay money to go see you in concert, I don’t pay money to hear you campaign for the democratic party or bash the President…Sure you have freedom of speech, but I don’t go to hear political opinions or views, I go to hear good music that does not have anything to do with politics.”

I’m gaining more [fans] than I’m losing,” McMurtry said, as a result of his recent work. “Politics is one of the things that has always been in music. If you don’t want politics in music, you can’t listen to Woody Guthrie, or Merle Haggard, or Toby Keith. Be careful what you wish for.”

So who are these people who listen? An awful lot of them are men — the IOTA crowd was probably at least 3-to-1 male-to-female. “Yeah,” said McMurtry, with a weary sigh. “It’s a drag, too.”

His fan base, he said, is “different in other parts of the country. In Texas we get a lot more frat kids. They tend to bring dates. That’s a spillover from Robert Earl Keen doing ‘Levelland.’ So we get a lot of them in there. A lot of ’em don’t like my politics much, but they show up anyway.” That song also appeals to a lot of working-class folk: “There’s a huge set that’ll leave right after ‘Levelland,’ ’cause that’s their song. They gotta get up and get to work.”

He picked up a certain kind of fan after a song called “Where’s Johnny,” from Candyland, hit it big on AAA radio. It’s about a sensitive loner who’s retreated from the world. “My houses started filling up with prematurely balding guys,” McMurtry wryly recalled. “And they all wanted to hear that song. We called them ‘Johnnies.’ We still do. And I guess some of ’em were gay, but some of ’em just couldn’t get a date. And it turned out some of ’em were married, ’cause their grown daughters started showing up about five years ago, and then it got a little more interesting.”

He probably had some policy wonks in the IOTA crowd, just a few miles from the White House. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, has adopted “We Can’t Make It Here” as the song of his 2006 Senate campaign. And the album Childish Things is number 1 on the Americana charts at press time. It looks like McMurtry, after too long in the music-biz wasteland, is finally getting a share of the attention he deserves.

Asked whether he worries that songs like “We Can’t Make It Here” will become dated, he replied, “I hope they do. It’d be nice to be able to have a regular old hit song!”

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