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November 29-December 6, 2006

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James McMurtry

Reflected glory: 'Lonesome Dove' author Larry McMurtry's son James is taking a fresh hard look at America.

Born-Again Activist

James McMurtry gets in-your-face with the Bush administration

By Tom Lanham

Sure, the Dixie Chicks might've grabbed all the headlines--even a feature-length documentary, Shut Up & Sing--for their little Bush-bashing escapade in England a few years ago. But other Texas songwriters have been on the anti-neocon frontlines, as well, quietly fighting the good fight and taking a similarly scary degree of flak for their efforts.

Like Austin twangsmith James McMurtry, for example. The well-read son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry has generally shied away from politics for most of his two-decade career. But in 2004, a few weeks before the presidential election, he felt every bit as angry as the Chicks' outspoken Natalie Maines. So he decided to take action.

McMurtry hastily recorded an acoustic version of a topical dirge he'd written, "We Can't Make It Here," then headed down to local radio station KGSR and got his DJ friend to spin it during morning drive time. Which turned out to be one big Dixie Chick-size mistake.

The "here" in question, of course, was Anytown, America; The point of view: Middle-class Everyman. Like the hard-put Wal-Mart employee who despises the "lily-white" men "who sent the jobs away/ They've never known want, they've never known need/ Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed/ Their kids won't bleed in their damn little war/ And we can't make it here anymore."

Delivered in the singer's deep ursine rumble, the track (now featured on his recent Childish Things release for the Compadre label) sounds daunting, downright threatening in places. And that's exactly how many AM commuters took it on the morning of its debut: As a threat.

"Before I even got home from the station, I had some nasty emails on my website that got forwarded to me," McMurtry chuckles in retrospect. "People did not wanna hear it at that time, in that year. Middle America hadn't gotten as sick of the war by then as they are now. Now people in Kansas and Iowa are just tired of seeing the coffins come back."

The fallout wasn't restricted to the Internet. McMurtry endured his share of onstage heckling, as well.

"I remember one guy in San Antonio giving me the double thumbs-down and booing. But he didn't realize that he was in the middle of a crowd of Veterans for Peace, the guys who ran Cindy Sheehan's camp. So when the Veterans for Peace had a national meeting in Dallas, they invited me to come up and play 'We Can't Make It Here' to kick everything off."

Undaunted, this overnight activist decided to offer the track for free on his website, sans album. The response was overwhelming. "As a download, the song got more attention than most of what I'd put out on CD in the last 10 years," he notes, in a loping laconic drawl. "So it kinda gave us some momentum when we got the rest of the record done."

What originally motivated the dissertation? Frustration, McMurtry responds, in a heartbeat. "I guess my vote really didn't matter that much, being in Texas. So what've I got? I've got a record deal, I've got a microphone. So you do whatever you can.

"And I've always had something to say, but that's not always a good idea as a basis for a song. Songwriters with something to say tend to drag their songs down. To make a good song you usually have to kinda give the song its head, and for the sake of rhyme and meter you might change something, you might wind up saying something that you yourself wouldn't say. But if the song says it, it's cooler that way. If you're brave enough, that's how ya do it. And with 'We Can't Make It Here,' I had to try to get some of my point across, because the situation had just gotten too weird."

McMurtry pauses for a protracted sigh. "I mean, we grew up thinking we wouldn't have to be involved in politics, that this thing was gonna stay within a certain framework that we considered sane. But it's no longer sane. And if we want the picture to be sane again, we all have to get involved."

McMurtry, 44, speaks slowly, deliberately, considering every last word. He approaches composing the exact same way. Horror writer Stephen King has called him "the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation," although McMurtry is the first to admit he's far from prolific. He has 10 tracks already penned for his Childish Things follow-up, but he plans on tinkering with them well into mid-'07. "I'm gonna have to pick at this one for a while," he reckons. How does he know when a record is finished? He chortles. "Either when you're absolutely out of money, or you're absolutely out of time. Like when you're up against a hard deadline, and you just have to let go of it."

The self-produced Childish Things covers the same dusty heartland terrain as much of Steve Earle's work, with solemn covers of Peter Case's "Old Part Of Town" and (in a duet with Joe Ely) the classic grizzly yarn "Slew Foot." But the title track, in which the protagonist promises to "put away childish things," hides some humorous irony. Yes, McMurtry is a dad now (his 16-year-old son Curtis plays baritone sax on the album). But--as an entertainer who literally sings for his supper--he hasn't really shelved childhood at all. He acknowledges that, in some respects, he's living a Peter Pan existence. "And I've touched on that theme a few times. There was a song called 'Racing Through the Red Light' several records back that had a verse about 'Mama said get your face to the fire/ Put the guitar down, put the clothes in the dryer/ Put the guitar down, quit making it ring/ A little bit of hope is a dangerous thing.' But I really wouldn't do anything else but this. I mean, there are times when we all get frustrated with our jobs, and I suppose if I had something else I could do this well, I might just try it. But I don't, and there's probably a good reason for that."

Fans would most likely see it the same whimsical way. And besides, McMurtry adds, the recent midterm elections have given him reason to rejoice. In his own laid-back style, of course. "Things are better than they could've been, that's for sure," he assesses. "But I'm a little bit wary of Pelosi--I think she may turn out to be the Gingrich of the West. But I believe she'll flame out quicker than Newt did and then they can just get on with it. She's doing the same thing within the Democratic party that Bush is doing nationally--she's picking fights that she just can't win, and what's the deal with that?"

Shut up and sing? Nope--not McMurtry. He's thrown his hat in the political ring for good now. Don't believe him? Check out his website, he invites. "I've got a new song on there called 'God Bless America,' and anybody can download it for free right now and figure out pretty quick what it's about. It's a little more in-your-face kinda thing. I'm no fan of the Bush administration, but a lot of what the narrator of 'We Can't Make It Here' complained about really took wing under Clinton, so it was more of a general overview of the mess we were in. But this next one?" He cackles wickedly. "It really is an anti-Bush song, and it's really going for the throat. The first one was an editorial--this one is more like a sharp political cartoon."

James McMurtry and special guest Paul Thorn play Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8pm at the KPIG Humbug Hoedown at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets $19 advance/$23 door; 831.423.1336.

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