James McMurtry on Guy Clark, Sanders, Trump, and Fictional Songwriting
What follows is a transcript of my recent interview with James McMurtry, wherein we covered Guy Clark, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, fracking, his son Curtis, songwriting about fictional characters and circumstances, and more.
Bill Nevins: I saw your AMP Concerts show at the Dirty Bourbon club in Albuquerque last Sunday night. Great show. How did you like it?
James McMurtry: Well I wish they could have turned that disco effect off on the dance floor. They only had two bartenders for 200 presales, and they were doing a single file thing at the bar which is ridiculous. You gotta have bartenders bringing drinks and change up and down the bar. They could have rung ten times what they rang.
Have you tended bar? There are bartenders in some of your songs, like the one who tells an obnoxious customer to “sit your drunk ass down, we’ll get to you in time.”
Not much. I wasn’t very good at it. My girlfriend tends bar.
I think people hear things in your songs and assume they are autobiographical. Do you ever write autobiographical songs?
No, just little scraps of autobiography here and there. I fictionalize everything. It would be very hard to write a good song, being autobiographical.
I read that really wonderful interview you did in an online magazine with Guy Clark a few years ago, before he passed. You two talked about that -- how he would use straight-up autobiography in his songs and you talked about using fiction instead. You are on the Guy Clark tribute album. Have you any thoughts to share on Guy?
I wish I had gotten to know him better. He was always an accessible, friendly guy, and I’m kind of a standoffish person myself. My son [Curtis McMurtry, songwriter and recording artist] knew him better than I did. Curtis actually wrote songs with Guy.
Oh that’s good to hear, because that’s how your interview ends, with Guy asking you to invite Curtis to contact him.
Yeah, I dropped Curtis off at Guy’s house in Nashville one time. They gave it a shot at writing together.
I really like Curtis’s first album. Is he doing another one?
I’m not sure what his plans are. He’s been out touring on the West coast, just got back and he’s about to head East, I think.
On your website you talk about the Big Bend situation and fracking...
I just don't think they should be using eminent domain to help one guy get richer. Eminent domain is supposed to be for the common good and I don’t see how that’s for the common good. They are using it for all kinds of pipelines -- Keystone and all. Obama keeps posturing like he’s stopping it, but Keystone is already laid down.
Fracking is coming in all over the place, despite resistance here where I live, in Mora County, New Mexico -- and many other places.
Yeah, it is wrong.
Did you do any unrecorded songs the other night? I know you did some very old ones.
“What’s the Matter” is the only unrecorded one we did. Working on some more.
Your latest album Complicated Game is great. It came out last year. How do you feel about it now?
Well, I feel pretty disconnected from it, really. That’s a producer’s masterpiece — I didn’t produce that record.
CC Adcock produced it. His own album Layafette Marquis is so fine.
Yeah that’s a great album. I wore it out, and that’s why I wanted to have him produce my album. Complicated Game was made one track at a time. I would go to New Orleans and lay down a guitar track and then put in a vocal track. But then I would have to go out on the road again, because all our money comes from the road now. I couldn’t afford to stay around for six weeks like we used to, for the recording sessions. They would bring a great keyboard player in, for instance, and I wasn’t there for all those sessions. But I was there for Ivan Neville’s harmony session, which was fantastic. He just nailed it!
Do you still get stage fright? You said in your Guy Clark interview that it haunted you when you were younger?
Yeah, it’s still there, to a certain extent. It’s a lot easier if people are dancing and moving then you don’t worry about them so much. Solo gigs are kinda scary because they rarely get dancing.
I have one dumbass question. You look great now, but what is up with the shave and haircut? Was it just getting too hot?
No, I just cut it off every ten or fifteen years and start over again. If I let my hair get too beat up, I start to look like Bernie Sanders. [Laughs.]
Speaking of politics, you have written some great political songs, like “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” and “Cheney’s Toy.” There are certainly political implications in many of your songs, but you don’t write overtly political songs that often.
There’s only a couple of them where its really out front. Usually I weave the social commentary into the song.
It’s really hard to write a good political song. Steve Earle is the best at getting what he wants to say into a song, but most of us, if we try to force our point of view into the song, then you kill the song. You get a sermon.
One of the dangerous things about songwriting is — I do it from a character. I get the character, I get lines, then I write what the character might say. I sing it in my voice but it is what the character is saying, not me. The character might not necessarily agree with me. But my job is to write the best possible song, and so I have to stay in character, and write what the character would say. A good rhyme might cause me to change a line, soas to get the best possible song, which is [what] my job [is]. People get confused between the character and me and think that I said something as James McMurtry that I didn't really say, when it’s actually what a character said, not me.
Yes, novelists like Jack Kerouac have been accused of saying things which really were only what their characters said.
Right, and novelists or actors or filmmakers can get away with it much easier than songwriters and singers can, because the song is sung in your voice, so people think it is you saying it.
I used the “n” word in a song some years ago because the character used it, but then some idiot put the song on the radio. You can’t do that. I would hate to be a black person getting off work and driving home and then hear that word sung on the radio. This is not political correctness we are discussing here -- It’s politeness we are talking about. For some reason, the voice is more powerfully linked to the source of the voice [in singing] than even in a movie.
Any thoughts on politics now?
The world seems to go crazy every ten or fifteen years. The anger that is fueling Trump now was there when Timothy McVeigh blew the wall off a building. But now everybody seems surprised to see that anger in Trump and [at] his rallies. It was there then and it is here now. Trump can’t get away with claiming he is not inciting violence, cause he damn well is.