James McMurtry Can Make It Here
One of the truly gifted Texas songsmiths, James McMurtry has carved a nice, viable career out of great lyrics, stellar playing, hard touring, a good work ethic, and common sense. His last two studio albums, Childish Things (2005) and Just Us Kids (2008), established McMurtry as one of the most fearless voices of dissent in popular music, with rock critic Robert Christgau actually naming "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" as the best song of the decade.
McMurtry rolls into town Saturday with label mate Jason Isbell for a double bill at the Firehouse Saloon. We caught up with him just before sound check at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin.
Rocks Off: In terms of career, do you think the political turn in some of your writing has been a plus or a negative? Do you wrestle with that, whether to go political or stay out of that area?
James McMurtry: It's been a huge plus. Career-wise, "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" took us around a corner to a new level. It seemed like we'd hit a wall as far as new venues, new fans, then that song brought a lot of attention that just boosted everything to a new level. Unfortunately, it also has caused me to be tagged as a political or protest writer, and that's only a small part of my songwriting.
RO: What was your reaction to your father's [writer Larry McMurtry] piece on Rick Perry in the New York Review of Books?
JM: Pretty much a bullseye.
RO: What's your take on the current Republican campaign circus?
JM: I don't pay that much attention to it, really. To me, except for Romney and Ron Paul, they're all pretty crazy. Ron Paul doesn't get much attention, and I'm not saying he has things all figured out either, but he says stuff even the Democrats are afraid to say and I like that. At least Paul and Romney make a sliver of sense every once in a while.
RO: Neither you nor your father seem to be raving lefties. You seem more like a centrist with some survivalist ideas thrown in.
JM: The sad thing is there is no center anymore. There's no centrist consensus in this country like there used to be. Literally everything is polarized now.
RO: What do you attribute that to?
JM: We don't have any trusted central figures like we used to turn to, people like Walter Cronkite or Roger Mudd, people we trusted. Now there's sixty channels competing for viewers or listeners so everyone has their own channel. Instead of getting a balanced view, today people just listen to the channel with the talking heads who say what they want to hear. Another Walter Cronkite coming along might help get more of us back to the center, which would help the country.