James McMurtry Interview: Complicated Games, Frozen Cattle, Fedoras and Music to Dance to
James McMurtry is touring the USA this spring and summer with his band, in support of their new album, Complicated Game. I talked with him by cell phone in late April from the road.
Bill Nevins: Great new album. What's the complicated game?
James McMurtry: Thank you. Well, it's mostly about relationships, and that's a complicated game. Actually, my label is called Complicated Game, and I had that line in a song, so I stole it for the album title and figured people would think I owned the record label.
Good plan. Are you writing any songs here about things that have happened to you? When you write in the first person, is that ever you?
No, that's definitely not me. I'm a fiction writer. I make it all up. The way I write a song is, I get a couple lines and a melody and I think, now who said that? And then I come up with the character that might have said that, and then I can get the story from the character.
So, you don't chase down your blood pressure pills with Red Bull like your guy in that song does?
No, but a couple years ago we played a cruise ship and a couple of nurses came up and said that was their favorite line.
You've got such a body of work now that it's like a body of short stories. Do the same characters ever come back from earlier songs?
I haven't had that happen yet. But I don't write prose, I just write verse -- they're kind of different muscles, really.
How did you get to be such a good guitar player?
I had to ... my budget kept shrinking and if I wanted to have electric guitar, I had to play it myself after a while. I wasn't very good at it for a while. I was always a decent acoustic guitar player, but when I started playing Telecaster and learning on the job, it was pretty shaky there for a while. I got most of my suckin' done!
You've said you admire Sonny Landreth, for instance.
Oh definitely, he's an amazing player. But I don't try to play like him, though.
You play all year, don't you?
Yeah, we have to now, 'cause most of the money comes from the road. We're on the road about half the year, and when we're home we have weekend work and we've got a regular mid-week gig at the Continental Club in Austin, so we play most of the year now.
This album seems to be going over a map of the US, from South Dakota to Long Island Sound.
Yeah, well, the Long Island song I actually did get stuck on the Whitestone Bridge. But South Dakota came about cause my dad [author and screenwriter Larry McMurtry] called me up sometime in October of 2013 and said, 'Have you heard about the tragedy?' It was that early blizzard that killed all those cows. And that kind of puzzled me because he hates cows. He grew up ranching. It wasn't the cows that he was worried about; it was the people that tend the cows for a living that bothered him. He still has an affinity for ranching people even though he never wants to do that kind of work again.
That's such a stark image. The rancher buys all those cattle in Texas because of the drought and then they freeze and there are all these useless carcasses.
Yeah, that really happened. Their coats hadn't thickened yet. And there were cows that were there already, that died. It was terrible.
You get the word about events like that through your song, to people who might not have heard about it. You have written only a few overtly political songs, but that song is political in its way, isn't it?
Yeah, there's a thread of social commentary through most of my songs. You have to be careful writing political songs because there's a tendency to get on a soap box. I got lucky with "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" and that turned out to be a good song, but you can't get too preachy, or you can turn people off.
It seems like, by feeling the country as you travel around it, you get to tell us what's going on. That immigrant to Long Island Sound is fascinating.
Yeah, you hear so many songs about people from the South living in the Northeast, and they're mostly about how 'I'm stuck up here in New England with Dixie on my mind,' and homesickness. So I thought this guy should be from Oklahoma and I'll have a guy who moved up to Long Island and he likes it and doesn't wanna go back to Tulsa!
Are you a country songwriter?
Definitely not. I listened to country growing up and that's what my dad listened to, but I wouldn't call myself a country songwriter, especially not in the context of modern country music.
You have made felt fedoras famous.
Well, I moved to San Antonio in the mid '80s and there was a really good hat store downtown, Paris Hatters, and I just started wearing them for some reason. I wear straw hats in the summer -- too hot for felt.
Do you have a set list for this part of the country [New Mexico]? Or do you just plan to play the whole album?
This album has a lot of slow ballads on it, so it's kinda hard to do the whole album as a live set because people get fidgety. You want to give them something to dance to now and again. So we still do "Choctaw Bingo" and "Too Long in the Wasteland," and mix it up.
Looking forward to seeing you again in Santa Fe!
Thanks. See you then.