Traveling America’s highways provides James McMurtry with inspiration for his songs

By L. Kent Wolgamott
For the Call

James McMurtry spends hundreds of hours in his van each year, traveling American’s highways on the way to the 100-plus shows he and his band annually perform.
The van hours, however, aren’t just down time. The travel, McMurtry says, provides the inspiration for his geographic, detail-filled songs.
Take, for example, the song “South Dakota,” the story of a young military veteran returning to the small town and family farm from “Complicated Game,” his critically acclaimed 2015 album.
The song goes: “There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/Barbed wire won’t stop the wind/You won’t get nothin’ here but broke and older/If I was you I might re-up again.”
“I drive around a lot,” McMurtry said. “That’s what we do. We travel around in the van, playing my music. That song ‘South Dakota,’ we drive through these little towns and they always have a banner, ‘Welcome Home Pfc. …’ You don’t see that in urban areas.
“That’s where it came from and knowing people in the Army. One of my best friends was in for 22 years. He basically went broke and needed a job. He went into the Army.”
The banners triggered the process that created “South Dakota.”
Then a line or two sets up the rest of the song, McMurtry said.
“I get a couple lines and a melody and then I think, ‘Who said that?’,” he said. “I try to create the character who said that, then I go backward to the story, sometimes.”
While he frequently writes songs, McMurtry didn’t make ”Complicated Game” until he had to. His trigger for a new album was things slowing down on the road.
“I didn’t make a record for four or five years because we didn’t need to,” he said. “Then the club cycle, the attendance started falling off, so we made another one.
“That’s what they’re for now. We make ’em so guys like you write about them and write about us, and people know we’re coming to town.”
Coming to town is now McMurtry’s stock-in-trade. Sales of CDs have dwindled, the payment for artists from digital downloads is far smaller than that for physical products and money from streaming is almost non-existent, he said.
“That’s the way the music business is now,” McMurtry said. “We’re on the road half the year. When we’re home, we do work around here and I have regular gigs in Austin. It’s the only way to make money anymore.
“The mailbox money isn’t there anymore … I’ve been working for 25 years. It was a completely different world when I started out.”
That was 28 years ago, when his debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” was released by Columbia Records.
But he’d been playing guitar since his dad, novelist Larry McMurtry, gave him a guitar at seven and his mom taught him a couple chords.
“I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I was growing up,” McMurtry said. “By the time I was supposed to be grown up, I learned there were people who wrote songs for other singers. I was going to move to Nashville to be a songwriter.”
About that time, John Mellencamp was directing and acting in a movie, “Falling From Grace,” from a script written by Larry McMurtry.
“I pitched him (Mellencamp) a tape, hoping he’d want to record one of my songs. That way when I got to Nashville, somebody would rent me an apartment because I’d have money coming in,” McMurtry said. “He didn’t want to record any of the songs, but he produced an album for me. He got me the deal with Columbia Records. That was in 1989.”
McMurtry did two more albums for Columbia and three studio discs for Sugar Hill, the last one coming in 2002.
“Every record after that (‘Falling From Grace’), the budgets kept getting smaller,” McMurtry said. “We learned how to do it on the cheap. We figured out we could tour in a van and make money. We were well prepared when Napster cut the head off the music business.”
In the last 14 years, McMurtry has released just three studio albums, 2005’s “Childish Things,” which won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year award, 2008’s “Just Us Kids” and then 2015’s “Complicated Game.”
While “Complicated Game” is story based, many of McMurtry’s songs, like the award-winning working-class anthem “We Can’t Make It Here,” are pointedly political.
Asked for his assessment of the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, he replied: “It’s a dangerous situation. To me, it (was) rather analogous to (Ronald) Reagan/(Jimmy) Carter. At the time, no one believed Reagan stood a chance in the fall … The political system is upside down, like the music business. The thing I remember most about Reagan is he invented soundbite politics.
“What I remember is, ‘There he goes again.’ I don’t remember what it was about. But you remember that line. It was so well delivered, that changed politics. It’s when the best actor started winning every cycle since then. (Bill) Clinton was the best actor anybody’d ever seen.”
Songs from “Complicated Game” make up a good part of McMurtry’s current set, but there are some songs he and the band have to play every night.
‘“Choctaw Bingo’ and ‘Levelland’ are fairly mandatory in some places,” he said. “There are some places where they don’t get ‘Levelland’,’ like Maine for example …”
Then McMurtry and his three compatriots get back in the van and head down the road, driving as many as eight to 10 hours between towns to play shows. If he’s lucky, McMurtry will maybe find inspiration for a song on the way.
James McMurtry will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, at Delmar Hall, 6133 Delmar Blvd. Doors open at 7 p.m.