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James McMurtry

by HAP MANSFIELD

Award-winning singer-songwriter James McMurtry is a many faceted fella.

A life-long hunter, he has the deer hunter’s laconic, calm veneer which masks the super-sensitive alertness that can track a doe or, in McMurtry’s case, write an incisive lyric. In other words, he’s an observer who is truly awake, as the blog on his website often proves.

It probably has to be said that his father is the novelist Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”, “Terms of Endearment”) and James’ life started out in Houston, although he spent most of his school years in Virginia.

His influences and musical heroes are many and range from Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson and back again.  He won the American Music Award’s Album of the year for his release Childish Things in 2006. The “Dean” of American music critics, Robert Christgau, call McMurtry’s song “We Can’t Make It Here,” the best song of the 2000’s and it also won the AMA song of the year.

McMurtry’s songs often speak of a broken America and a crippled society with his signature acid bitter tang and a strong taste of iron. But, as playwright Phillip Barry wrote, “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

McMurtry does have a dark side where he wrestles with the demons of American culture and politics. He’s also an amiable, no-nonsense pragmatist who likes dark chocolate, Wallace Stegner and speaks kindly and intelligently about a variety of subjects ranging from how to cook venison to Noel Coward.

He plays Cheatham Street Warehouse on Jan. 19.

If you go …

What: James McMurtry

When: 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19

Where: Cheatham Street Warehouse, 119 Cheatham St.

San Marcos Mercury: I read that you were going to go hunting in December. Did you get anything?

James McMurtry: Yeah, I just dropped a doe off at the processor. I usually just hunt does — the meat is better, more tender. I don’t usually hunt the bucks although I can understand hunting them. I did run into a big eight-pointer, he walked right up to me with a big swelled neck and it was tempting but he was in rut and the meat is no good.

Mercury: Why do you hunt?

McMurtry: I don’t know. I always have been drawn to it.

Mercury: How do you cook a venison steak?

McMurtry: I grill it really fast and hot. Hotter than you grill beef. I grill most all of it. The ribs can be slow roasted at about 350 for a few hours. Most get the rib meat crowned but I don’t.

Mercury: Is music the chick magnet guys think it’s going to be?

McMurtry: No. It can be helpful [but] it depends on the guy. Whether it’s football or music it’s about the panache of the individual guy.

Mercury: You’ve said that Kris Kristofferson is an influence and you’ve mentioned his song  “Pilgrim Chapter 33″. That song is sort of like you. The song says “he’s a picker and a poet.” Which is your favorite thing?

McMurtry: Pick.

Mercury: You are very good at it.

McMurtry: Well, I’m drawn to it. The picking is fun, the songwriting is the homework.

Mercury: When do you do your song writing?

McMurtry: In the morning. I do most of it in the morning.

Mercury: You’ve said when you are on the road the band members read and you look out the window. Many of your songs sound like a panoramic view from a window.

McMurtry: Yeah, well Choctaw Bingo is like that. Most of it was seen on the road in Oklahoma. None of it is there anymore, though.

Mercury: Your songs have a sadness in them, I think. There’s a dark edge.

McMurtry: Life has a dark edge.  It’s easier to write like that than to be a cheerleader.

Mercury: Music is an important part of people’s lives and I think that when you hear the music from different places you can hear what people are like.

McMurtry: Well, some people, but not always. If you listen to the lyrics you’ll hear about how some people are but not all of them. You can’t tell everything about them.  The words make a difference. There’s a Jimmie Rogers song ” Mule Skinner Blues“- “Hey little water boy/ Bring that water round/ If you don’t like your job/ Set that water down.” You know “boy” meant something different there.

Mercury: I was just talking to younger friends about the “N” word, which I won’t use. They said it was different now, it didn’t mean the same thing.

McMurtry: I think that as long as we keep using it, that’s how long it’s going to be offensive. I used it in a song “12 O’Clock Whistle” and some moron played it on the radio. The words were straight out of granny’s mouth, how she talked. But can you imagine hearing it on the radio while you’re on the freeway? They got phone calls, of course. Even Kinky Friedman can’t get away with it. I was at the Continental Gallery and I was covering a Kinky Friedman song, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and when that word comes up the crowd gets real quiet.

Take Quentin Tarantino. He’s an actor, a director and a writer and that word gets used a lot in his movies. But he’s not only an actor, he wrote the words. So there you are. But, also as an artist you don’t want to be censored. I don’t want to be censored.

Mercury: Do you have a favorite book?

McMurtry: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. It’s a damn near perfect book.

Mercury: Do you ever want to break free of the Americana music genre and cover a little Cole Porter or George Gershwin?

McMurtry: Maybe Cole Porter. (breaks into the chorus of “There are bad times just around the corner” and sings) “There are bad times just around the corner, there are dark clouds hurtling through the sky ” Oh wait, that’s not Porter that’s Noel Coward. You really have to be English to do that.

Mercury: Do you like being home in Austin?

McMurtry: Yeah. We play every Wednesday at the Continental Club when we’re home.

Mercury: Do you have anything that gives you joy?

McMurtry: Sure do.

Mercury: Would you care to expand on that?

McMurtry: [laughs] No. I don’t really care to comment on that.

Listen

Audio taken from YouTube videos of James McMurtry’s live performances

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