James McMurtry is a Texas musician who is able to put words together to conjure up great images of good ol’ America.
He’s far from a songwriter who states the obvious. Lyrics can tell us that love can be wonderful and, more times than not, it stinks.
They also tell us most politicians are greedy airbags (no matter what side you vote) with a hand in the pocket of someone else, touting your best interests when, at heart, they know your best interest better reflect theirs.
And when it comes to lyrics, we all know that America is a beautiful, weird and stunningly gorgeous place with lots of interesting people to boot.
McMurtry writes about all of this in songs that are funny, sad, comical and looks at degenerate America and all its occupants who make it equally celebrated and ridiculously frustrating.
Life is really the best, and at the same time a complete ironic joke, and it’s a good thing there are songs out there that remind us of that cold reality.
McMurtry will return to the Abbey Theatre on Saturday night for a solo show. His last appearance in Durango was in the mid 1990s; he had been booked at Storyville (now the Lost Dog Bar & Lounge) a decade ago.
Tickets were sold, a crowd showed up, but management forgot to tell McMurtry. The show was canceled and people were disappointed, and that’s a common occurrence in the satirical theater that is the music business.
The man comes from a writing family. His father, Larry McMurtry, is the famed author of Lonesome Dove and other tales of the American West. However, as a songwriter, the son reaches for inspiration from other songwriters, not his dad.
“The writing has more to do with Kris Kristofferson. He writes verse. My father doesn’t write verse, that’s a different muscle,” said McMurtry last week on the phone from Austin.
He seems quiet, unless you get him going on criticizing the music business or Washington. He’s not one to stray away from political songwriting, but he admits it’s more challenging to write political songs in this day and age.
“It’s just harder to get your head around. We’re not sure who the bad guys are. Cheney and Bush made excellent bad guys, they were like Boris and Natasha, you could go for them,” he said. “Of course, they weren’t pulling the strings; the people in power are still in power.”
Criticizing the music business comes easy, too. McMurtry is well aware of the many changes. He celebrates the demise of the major record store, touts the importance of independent record stores and labels and knows that touring more than makes up for lack of sales. It all makes for good fodder for a man who remains a storyteller within a songwriter for his songs that aren’t necessarily autobiographical.
“It’s mostly fiction. Its a lot more fun, actually, I don’t want to write my life,” McMurtry said. “I’ll use a piece of it here and there if it fits the rhyme and meter scheme, but the main thing is to write a good song.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.