It only takes one song. Singer/songwriter James McMurtry had toiled for 15 years, releasing bluesy country-rock albums and playing shows, and was getting discouraged. In advance of the 2004 election, he released the powerful, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” as a free download on his site, and it launched him into greater prominence.
It articulated a wrenching rage building in many stomachs, that’s even louder today.
“The billionaires get to pay less tax/ The working poor get to fall through the cracks,” McMurtry sings. “Let ’em eat jellybeans, let ’em eat cake/ Let ’em eat shit, whatever it takes.”
“I got it from driving around and looking at towns that were slowly disintegrating,” he says. “My songs are pretty cerebral, and most people don’t have time to think. They got a phone bill to pay. But that one, they were already thinking that way. So it connected. That turned the corner for us. Suddenly we started filling clubs – we’d been playing half-houses for a while. It’s good for my career, but not a good sign for the country that so many people identified with it.”
The track propelled his 2005 album, Childish Things, and helped McMurtry capture album-and-song-of-the-year honors at that year’s American Music Awards. The politically charged album marked a change for McMurtry who had shied away from confrontation and topicality, sticking to character sketches and keen metaphor, like the guilty-looking subject of “Where’d You Hide the Body?”
“A political song will turn into a sermon fast, and get boring. People don’t want to be preached to. I don’t want to preach at ’em. But I got pissed off,” he says. “I do have things to say about politics, and I’m not going to refrain from saying them anymore, because we can’t afford to. Nobody can afford to be silent. There was a time when we thought we could kinda go along and the scene would remain in the realm of normalcy. We thought Ronald Reagan was as weird as it was going to get, but we found out different.”
This year’s follow-up, Just Us Kids, keeps the heat on, winding from “The Governor,” with its swamp-blues tale of accountability, fat cats, and a pair of dead fisherman, through the decaying empires of the rootsy, jangling “Ruins of the Realm,” to the Bush-bashing “Cheney’s Toy,” and blues-funk breakdown “God Bless America, (Pat MacDonald Must Die)” which assails war profiteers.
“A buddy of mine was in Iraq for a year. He resigned from the military after 22 years because he didn’t want to kiss contractor ass anymore,” McMurtry explains. “He had a female soldier under his command who was harassed by some KBR guys. He got in their face about it and got hauled in by a colonel the next day and dressed down. … KBR has the power over there. The Army is pretty much working for them, and they’re getting rich on us.”
The son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, James lives in Austin, but spent several formative years in San Antonio when he was just starting out as a performer. After dropping out of the University of Arizona-Tucson, “for the last time,” McMurtry kicked around for a few months and finally arrived in town January 10, 1985.
The nascent songwriter was going to work as a bartender at the renovated Liberty Bar. McMurtry remembers how the neighborhood smelled of brewer’s yeast from the (then operational) Pearl Brewery next door. He sat in the bar the whole next day, drinking Falstaffs, and staring out the plate-glass window, “watching the snow come down past the streetlights, thinking it’s just never going to stop snowing.” It wouldn’t stop for two days and 13 inches.
Two years later, McMurtry would get his big break. First he was a finalist in the Kerrville New Folk Competition after a friend urged him to enter. Then he passed a demo to John Cougar Mellencamp, who’d hired James’ dad to write a screenplay for him. Hoping Mellencamp might record a song, he instead offered to produce James’ debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, which helped him secure a deal from Columbia Records. Seven albums later, he’s on top of his game.
For a kid who once dreamed of being Johnny Cash, the spotlight still holds a certain allure, though it won’t hold his tongue hostage.
“Our job is to be remembered, not loved,” McMurtry asserts. “A star has to be loved, and an artist remembered, but the two aren’t distinct. I haven’t found that star power, but maybe I’ll stumble across it one day.” •
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