Music News & Reviews

Writing about small towns, McMurtry can’t avoid politics: ‘It’s infected everybody’s lives.’

James McMurtry headlines the Moonshiners Ball, Oct. 12 to 14 at Rockcastle Riverside.
James McMurtry headlines the Moonshiners Ball, Oct. 12 to 14 at Rockcastle Riverside.

In the midst of James McMurtry’s finest compositions sit the sagas and secrets of smalltown existence: its fears, its favors and especially the sort of stark detail that makes for epic country music. Of course, given the realities of the characters he conjures, it’s tough to imagine a McMurtry song popping up on country radio between Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean party anthems.

Take the title tune to the Texas songsmith’s 1989 debut album “Too Long in the Wasteland,” where barroom etiquette bleeds over into the unrest of everyday living (“I hadn’t intended to bend the rules; whiskey don’t make liars, it just makes fools”). Fast forward to today and little has changed as you soak in the radical polarization of the 2018 non-album song “State of the Union” (“He don’t like the blacks and he don’t trust the news; he hates the Hispanics and alternative views”).

These are the small town sagas of James McMurtry.

“In a small town, it’s kind of easy to get your head around those kinds of characters,” said McMurtry, the headline artist of this year’s Moonshiners Ball. He performs at 7 p.m Saturday during the weekend-long festival.

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“When I wrote most of the songs on ‘Too Long in the Wasteland,’ I was living in Archer City, Texas with my father’s family. There wasn’t much entertainment there unless you went to the football games. You could see how the town was organized, though. The other way to do it was to go to church, but I wasn’t going to do that. I much prefer football.”

His father is famed Western novelist Larry McMurtry. But ask about songwriting, which grabbed the attention of the younger McMurtry at an early age, and you’ll discover his foremost inspirations come from outside the family.

“Kris Kristofferson was the first writer mentioned to me as a songwriter when I was about nine years old,” McMurtry said. “Up to that point, I never had any thought as to where songs came from. I wanted to be Johnny Cash, but I didn’t know where he got his songs.

“Everybody has a different process. Mine is to get a couple of lines and a melody in my head and think, ‘Okay, who would have said that?’ And I try to create the character that would have said those lines. Then I can keep building, piece by piece, till I get a verse/chorus structure going to eventually combine with a story structure. So basically, I work from lines back through character back through story.”

While McMurtry isn’t a political writer, there is unquestionably a strong topical sting to some of songs, from “Cheney’s Toy,” a ragged reflection on nationalism featured on one of the songwriter’s finest albums, 2008’s “Just Us Kids,” to the almost retiring activism on “State of the Union.” McMurtry said incorporating politics into his music is unavoidable given how pervasive it has become within contemporary culture.

“It’s infected everybody’s lives and characters,” he said. “When I was a kid, politics and religion weren’t joked about. Everybody had them but there weren’t these stark, mean divisions as there are now. I think one of the reasons is we all listened to Walter Cronkite. Whether you were left, right or center, everybody had Walter. Now, everybody’s got whatever cheerleader station they want to go to get their own point of view reflected back at them. It’s very hard to have any discourse. It all becomes teams. I get a lot of news from the BBC and Al Jazeera. I like the British perspective, especially, because they don’t really care so damn much.”

Now with son Curtis a prolific a songwriter (“He will take songwriting past where I can because all I pretty much have are five chords and an attitude”), McMurtry views himself as a survivor, an artist still content to tour with his self-described “rock ‘n’ roll bar band” in search of a lasting balance between artistry and commerce.

“Steve Earle once said about the music business, ‘You take your number and you stay in line. Then you take a death grip on that number.’ You start young and you don’t know anything but you’re always rubbing up against people in the publishing industry or the guys running the labels. Some of them survive and wind up in positions where they can help you later on. It’s the survivors and the dinosaurs.”


The Moonshiners Ball

Performing: James McMurtry, Turkuaz, Moon Hooch, The Wooks, Freekbass and others.

When: Oct. 12-14

Where: Rockcastle Riverside, 4211 Lower River Road, Mt. Vernon

Tickets: $80-$120