Somewhere between Texas, Virginia, Arizona, and Alaska — that’s where James McMurtry looked for himself and his voice as an aspiring young singer/songwriter. By the time his 1989 debut, ‘Too Long in the Wasteland,’ came to pass, he’d found both and was back in Texas where it all began. Since then, McMurtry has released another 10 records, with his 12th, ‘Complicate Game,’ dropping just recently. It’s his first album in six years and it finds the oft-political writer turning his pen to the personal, instead.
KM: How are you adapting to the ever-shifting sands of the music business and the artists’ economy?
JM: The business seems to have adapted to me. I never had much in the way of record sales. Now, nobody does, and acts like me, who already know how to tour on the cheap, are the ones still up running.
Most songwriters are either storytellers or autobiographers — rarely are they both. Is that an instinctual or a learned divergence? Nature or nurture?
I don’t know. I prefer to write fiction. I grew up in a house where fiction was written on a normal basis, so one could argue for nurture in my case. My father, by contrast, grew up in a house where no one read fiction, much less wrote it. His people read for information, ‘Farmer’s Almanac’ and the like. He must have been born a fiction writer.
When you’re writing a story, how do you choose which perspective to take? And have you ever gone back and written a companion piece from a different character’s point of view?
I’ve never done the alternate pov companion piece. My songs start with two lines and a melody. When I hear the lines, I think, “Who said that?” If I’m lucky, I can conjure up a character who would have spoken the lines. Then I write the song either from the character’s point of view or third person omniscient. Once in a while, I’ll try second person.
Copyright infringement aside, do you ever worry that all the songs have been written? Or is there an infinite stream of inspiration to tap?
You can always use different words, different grooves, melodies . . .
On the new record, you focus on the personal more than the political. While those approaches can be equally powerful, do you think we’ll ever get to a time when songs like “We Can’t Make It Here” are no longer a necessary part of the equation?
There will be protest songs as long as people are pissed off. Let’s hope they remain pissed off rather than apathetic.
James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game’ is out now on Complicated Game Records and is available HERE.