“Are you kidding?” blurted James McMurtry. “Oh, you are kidding, all right.”
Sometimes the New York sarcasm doesn’t hit the mark like it usually does, so when the singer / songwriter was asked if he could possibly find anything to write about for his first album of new material since 2008’s “Just Us Kids” (home to tracks such as “Cheney’s Toy” and “The Governor”), the Texan almost didn’t believe the question.
But at least that bodes well for those of us eagerly awaiting the as yet untitled and unrecorded album (which should be out sometime this year) because it means that McMurtry has plenty to say to the world, even though he hasn’t started in on any political material yet.
“I haven’t really got into much political stuff on this next project,” he said of the album, which will be produced by C.C. Adcock. “I’m starting to get around to it. I got known for one song, and so I became known as a political songwriter, but I really don’t do too much of that. I do a lot of social commentary, but not a lot of direct politics.”
That one song, 2005’s “We Can’t Make It Here” remains a captivating and incendiary take on the state of the nation at the time, and to this day, the song is still relevant to huge segments of the population affected by the sagging economy, unemployment, and a general apathy toward the plight of the working man.
“A lot of people really seem to connect with that song, and that’s what the quality of a popular song is, that the listener can hear his or her self in it,” said McMurtry, who ironically found his greatest success with the song that spoke to the downtrodden.
“I wrote it out of frustration, and the only power I felt I had was a record deal,” he said. “I cut the song, the label put it out as a free download, and it showed me the power of the internet because it got more attention than anything I put on a CD in many years. We hadn’t even made the rest of the record. That was six months later, and we already had momentum coming into that record because people wanted to hear that song.”
They still do, and you can probably count on hearing it Saturday night when McMurtry pulls into City Winery on Varick Street for a solo show that’s opened by his son Curtis McMurtry. Expecting to intro “a little bit” of the material off his upcoming album, McMurtry will also dig into his deep catalog of songs that tell stories you just don’t hear too much anymore in music.
When asked if this ability to take listeners away to a different place with believable characters and compelling stories is a gift from his father, renowned novelist Larry McMurtry, he says “I don’t know if it’s a gene or not because there are no writers in his background. But there are good storytellers because he was the last generation that really had an oral tradition. When he was a kid they had radio, but they didn’t have TV and they weren’t really used to radio yet either. They sat around on the porch telling stories and that’s how they entertained each other in the few hours between work and sleep.”
McMurtry picked up that tradition, added his guitar to it, and he was off and running. As for any ambitions beyond songwriting and performing, he says he won’t be writing prose anytime soon, and that his songs are fiction, not taken from his own life. But in describing the writing process, he simply says “A lot of them come just through the windshield, with the weird stuff that we see. I wrote a whole song called “Choctaw Bingo,” it’s nine minutes long and it’s all just stuff we saw along the highway in Oklahoma. I kind of wrote it as a writing exercise to see if I could get all that stuff in the song. I did have to make up some characters to make it work, but for a while it seemed like every tour either ended or started going up or down Highway 69 through Southeast Oklahoma. In those days there was Choctaw Bingo, a big bingo parlor which is now Choctaw Casinos, and it covers about 50 acres. Further up there was a gun shop called Pop Knife & Gun. Just little oddball things like that. Anything that strikes me could be the key to a song.”
And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Jame McMurtry plays City Winery on Saturday, Mar. 2 at 8 p.m. For tickets, click here