James McMurtry isn’t a household name—and that’s a shame.
Those in the know respect McMurtry: Jason Isbell cites McMurtry as one of his “few favorite songwriters on Earth.” Publications such as No Depression have given McMurtry high accolades.
McMurtry released a new album, Complicated Game, in February, and he will be performing at Pappy and Harriet’s on Thursday, June 18.
McMurtry has been performing folk and Americana since his teens. He’s the son of Western novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry. During filming for Falling From Grace, a film for which Larry McMurtry wrote the screenplay, star John Mellencamp was given James McMurtry’s demo tape. The demo led to a collaboration song, “Sweet Suzanne,” between Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Joe Ely and James McMurtry, under the name of Buzzin’ Cousins, on the film’s soundtrack.
McMurtry said his formula has not changed much since his first album was released in 1989.
“As a recording artist and a performer, the lesson I’ve learned is that there are no shortcuts,” he said. “It’s just work.”
Complicated Game features more of an acoustic sound. McMurtry explained the benefits of such an approach.
“As far as the acoustic approach, the label wanted that,” he said. “They wanted even more acoustic, and me and the producer managed to talk them out of that. There are electric guitars laced through it, but they just aren’t as prominent. The acoustic approach is nice for some things, and it does put the focus on the lyrics more than anything else. The label heard me play solo one time and wanted a solo record. I didn’t want to do that, but I said I would do it more acoustically if that’s what they liked.”
Complicated Game was released on a label with the same name (Complicated Game). He said that even with the small labels, artists have to make adjustments if the label suggests them.
“Hell yeah, they fund it!” he said. “I’ve been dealing with it for 25 years, and I was on Columbia Records to start with. You have to go through the A&R department, and they have to approve it, or else it doesn’t come out. The independent labels aren’t spending as much money and can’t boss you around as much. They gave me a pretty respectful budget, so I worked with them.”
Of course, record sales aren’t what they used to be.
“The way the business part of it is set up now is we used to tour to support record sales; now we make records to support tour dates,” he said. “We put out a new record; people like you guys write about us and know we’re coming to town and playing at the club. That’s where all our money comes from now. We don’t get the royalties and mailbox money like we used to. The way that translates to recording is we can’t come off the road for six weeks and make a record like we used to.”
I asked McMurtry whether touring has become a royal pain in the ass. He said he’s used to it.
“I never sold that many records even when I was on Columbia, so I had to tour,” he said. “There was a while there where I was on Compadre Records and Childish Things sold pretty well, so there were some raw pieces during those days, but I’m used to it. I learned the tour sheet a long time ago, and the bands that know the tour sheet are the ones that are still in business. A lot of the guys I started touring with, they aren’t out here anymore.”
Speaking of Childish Things: The album included a protest song known as “We Can’t Make It Here,” a reflection of the hard economic times during the George W. Bush administration. However, both Republicans and Democrats these days can relate.
“I live in Texas, and this is a red state,” he said. “I tend to vote Democratic, so my vote doesn’t really count. It was the start of the 2004 elections, and I was feeling kind of powerless. I threw the song together, did a solo recording, and I ran down to KGSR Radio (in Austin), given I knew the morning DJ, and he bleeped out the un-PC words so he wouldn’t get in trouble and spun it on the morning drive time. I had nasty e-mails before I even got home. Bush was riding high then, and it wasn’t necessarily an anti-Bush song—and I started it during the Clinton administration. What the narrator complains about mostly is outsourcing, which really took off under Clinton, and Bush didn’t stop it, and neither did Obama; they’re all in the same pocket. It is sort of an expression of outrage. But those Bush-heads were really sensitive and had their whole identity wrapped up in Bush, and if you protested that he was doing something wrong, they got right in your face, and it didn’t even take a minute.”
McMurtry said that his tour is going well and that fans can expect to be fully entertained during his local stop, his third appearance at Pappy’s.
“We’re selling out most houses,” he said. “We sold out in Missoula, Mont. … We mix it up, and we do about half old and (half) new material. We still have to play the hits, given people come out to hear that.”
James McMurtry will perform with Max Gomez at 8 p.m., Thursday, June 18, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.