His songs are so real, you feel you can talk to his characters and recognize them in a police line-up. They’re a little dangerous and unpredictable. Yes, James McMurtry – who plays at Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany on Wednesday night – takes you through an entire feature-length movie in three to five minutes, and he rocks out like Crazy Horse in the process.
No wonder Stephen King says McMurtry’s highest profile song, “We Can’t Make It Here” from McMurtry’s just re-released “Childish Things” album, “may be the best American protest song since (Dylan’s) ‘Masters of War.’ Love it or hate, you’ll never forget it.”
You can easily understand why King would like McMurtry. Both are American gothic. Both are like Johnny Cash, who painted pictures of characters who are, well, not normal, but when you look King, Cash or McMurtry in the eye, you’re not sure those characters aren’t all diced up pieces of their own personae, and that each is living out fantasies through their works that could easily play out in reality if any of the three would happen to trip over the right circumstances.
You might expect McMurtry to be a big fan of King’s horror novels.
“I haven’t read his writing,” he says in his best Lou Reed voice.
What? Not even “Under The Dome,” which quotes “Talking at the Texaco” from McMurtry’s 1998 debut album “Too Long in The Wasteland”?
“I’ve been meaning to read it. I ought to.”
Maybe McMurtry thinks King is beneath him. After all, King sells more books than Oprah, his appeal cutting across all levels of society, and McMurtry is after all the son of Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and screenwriter responsible for penning “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove.”
“I have read some of (King’s) short stories,” he confesses, “(but) I might read a book a year.”
He must be putting me on.
“My dad collected rare books and sold rare books,” McMurtry explains. “Books were around me constantly, and they just became part of the walls. I didn’t think about reading them.”
Was he rebelling against culture?
“I just wasn’t interested. It’s kind of the way (my father’s) father ranched, and he was not interested in cows at all. Or horses.”
Maybe James was more influenced by his mother, the professor.
Nope. “I was probably (more influenced) by my father. I was around him more. I heard his stories, so I got a narrative structure and sense of place and setting. The stories he told around the dinner table, a lot of them didn’t get in print,” he says.
McMurtry describes his father’s life on a ranch as not primitive but certainly without radio where the dinner table became a place for long-form anecdotes like his dad’s recollections of the filming of the Paul Newman film “Hud” where the director spent many days and dollars trying to capture buzzards flying from a mesquite tree to no avail.
“Usually, part of the song writes me, and then I have to build the rest of it.” He tells me he had the melody for “St. Mary of The Woods” three years before the lyrics came to him.
“What I write is fiction. You want to make it sound authentic. You want to put in details so that anybody that knows anything about what you’re talking about will think you do, too. The beauty of verse in songs is you can be vague and not give away what you don’t know.”
Sometimes that backfires on him. “There’s a line in ‘Ruby and Carlos’ on the ‘Just Us Kids’ record.”
“Potato fields all muddy and brown, the gossip long since quieted down
After one more Coggins test pouring coffee for the county vet”
“The song is set somewhere in the northern Rockies where there’s a reference to aspen trees. There’s also a reference to a Coggins test, which is a test for an equine disease. They don’t have Coggins where they have aspins in potato fields. I didn’t know that until a horse person came up to me after a show one time.”
“(A song) is usually a couple lines and a melody, and if it’s really cool, it keeps me up at night, and I finish the song.”
“Ruby and Carlos” had its genesis in a casual comment at a restaurant. “We came out of a Waffle House somewhere in the south, and we’d been in the north (where) some Waffle Houses operate like NASA, everything is just clockwork, and then some of ’em are totally dysfunctional, and this was the latter. I came out, and Tim Holt said, ‘I guess we must have crossed the Mason/Dumbass Line.’ So I wrote that down, and I
had to figure who would say that, and eventually the character Ruby faded into being.”
Many writers create their works like a sculptor. They either start with a big chunk or words and pair it down, or they start with a skeleton and build it up. Not McMurtry. “I start with a piece of marble and look at the grain. See what the grain wants to do.”
McMurtry got his start playing obscure Jimmy Buffett, John Hartford and David Bromberg songs while attending the University of Arizona. Years later, he was hanging out one night in Chicago and wandered into a bar where his now-friend Bromberg was playing with Dr. John.
“We go to the dressing room, which is like a closet, and Mac (Rebennack, Dr. John’s real name) is sitting on this couch drinking his vodka and grapefruit juice, and he asked me what am I doing? I said, ‘You know, I just got a record out, and I’m trying to just figure it all out. It’s not what I expected.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, you finally get where the fuck you think you’re going, and you find out it’s not where the fuck you thought it was.’
“I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’
“He says, ‘You keep movin’!”
Story by Don Wilcock, editor in chief of BluesWax
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