Fifteen minutes after finishing an acoustic concert one evening in January, the Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry was backstage talking about his great-grandfather. The man had lost his own father and grandfather to post-Civil War skirmishes in Missouri, McMurtry said, so he and his wife fled the state. They settled in Denton County, Tex., 40-some miles northwest of the renovated Art Deco theater in Dallas that their great-grandson headlined that night. “They had to time it just right, because if you went West at that time, you could get into more violence because the Comanche were still active,” he said. “They farmed there for five or six years, waiting to make sure the Comanche weren’t coming back.”
The story was a good example of how forces like politics and war can affect regular people’s lives, which is a running theme in McMurtry’s work. McMurtry, who has released 12 albums over a 28-year career, has a reputation in some quarters as a political songwriter, in part because one of his most popular songs is an angry-lefty anthem. That song, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” laments that minimum wage “won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink,” and that the children of the poor are the ones who end up fighting in rich men’s wars. Released shortly before the 2004 election, the song swept through an America hollowed out by departed manufacturing jobs and the middle-class stability that went with them. A few years after its release, the critic Robert Christgau named it the best song of the decade.
But McMurtry more often writes about how seemingly distant political concerns nudge his characters’ choices and prod at their psyches: the stretched budget of the Veterans Affairs Department, or the birth of a new national park’s consuming the neighbors’ land through eminent domain. In “Sixty Acres,” the narrator laments that when his grandmother died, he inherited a plot of unpromising farmland while his cousin got “the good land,” zoned commercial: “Looks like a Walmart waiting to happen/I mean to tell you it’s a pot of gold.”
McMurtry’s father is the great Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, and his mother, Jo Scott McMurtry, is a former English professor specializing in Shakespeare. McMurtry calls his parents “first-generation-off-the-farm academics.” He was raised in secular urban homes and even attended boarding school for a spell. But he dropped out of the University of Arizona, and he remains fluent in his extended family’s dialect of ranches, oil fields and Jesus Christ. He has been on tour almost constantly since the late 1980s, and he just takes note of what he sees through the windshield, he said, like banners welcoming home soldiers in small towns.
At an upscale barbecue restaurant near his hotel in Dallas, where we met before his concert, our talk turned to tribalism and anti-intellectualism. His grandparents wanted their children to go to college to get better jobs, he said, but they didn’t want them to become intellectuals. Later he referred to the broader middle-American “hatred of anyone who is perceived to be getting a free ride of any kind” and the racism woven into that ethos: “The image of the black welfare queen driving the Cadillac while good white folk drove Oldsmobiles was the boogeyman of the ’80s. Now I suppose it’s Mexican immigrants getting free health care.” Over the course of an hour, he talked about the military-industrial complex, “embedded” war journalism and the role of charisma in electoral politics. I didn’t know whether to believe him when he said he didn’t read many books.
McMurtry had ordered black coffee and a plate of fried oysters. In a few hours, he would take the stage alone with his guitar, and in a few weeks, he and his band would leave for a European tour that would carry them from Ireland to Italy, playing 33 nights in a row. McMurtry’s music is usually classified as “Americana”; it’s at turns jagged and raucous, and at others deliberative and wistful. Other singers have smoother voices. But a movie star’s perfect face can work against his authenticity as an actor, and McMurtry’s unassuming vocal style and stage presence bring to the foreground the voices populating his songs. “There’s a danger in being a singer-songwriter,” he said. “You’re writing a character’s point of view, and you’ve got to sing it yourself. It comes out of your voice, so everybody thinks it’s your opinion.”
Although I’ve been listening to him for years, I have begun to think of him as interpreter of the places “out here in the middle,” as he puts it one song. He has written about Cheyenne, Wyo.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Wewahitchka, Fla; about crab fishermen, soldiers and Walmart stockers. His songs tap into resentments about things like coastal attitudes of superiority and political correctness. His narrators are often white men who know the Bible, own guns and give their kids a nip of vodka in their Cherry Coke to get through long road trips. A Texan friend of mine likes to say that McMurtry writes as though he has spent time eavesdropping on conversations in every Dairy Queen in America. Stephen King, who owns a classic-rock station in Maine, has written that he “may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”
McMurtry has seen things change in rural America over the last few decades, he said, the curdling of patriotism and self-reliance into something uglier. Gun ownership, for example, has become an identity, or even like a cult. He’s a hunter — deer, turkey, wild hogs — and he said gun shows and shops used to be friendly spaces. But now there’s a suspicion in the air if “you don’t have the right hat or the right haircut.” McMurtry himself has both, but he also has the kind of detachment required for skeptical reportage.
“Copper Canteen,” the opening track on his 2015 album, “Complicated Game,” is the song I’ve returned to most since Election Day. The narrator is a hunter, a fisherman and a small-business owner. He doesn’t go to church, but his wife does. Although retirement is in sight, and he has a pension, he hasn’t been able to save as much money as he would like, in part because the store he owns is getting squeezed by “the big boxes out on the bypass.”
But like most of McMurtry’s best songs, “Copper Canteen” eventually resolves into a portrait of a relationship. The long marriages and old love affairs he favors eschew the hot and cold dramatics of contemporary country music, a world in which you’re either swooning over your one true love or bashing in your ex’s windshield with a baseball bat. The “Copper Canteen” narrator is singing to his wife; they’re grandparents now, reflecting back on what it meant to “grow up hard” in a life that has moved by in a blur: “This life that we craved so little we saved between the grandparents’ graves and the grandchildren’s toys.” Like many McMurtry characters, he sounds nostalgic even though he knows that the past was often bad. The song opens with a bang, or the suggestion of one: “Honey, don’t you go yellin’ at me while I’m cleaning my gun,” he drawls. “I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.” Defying Chekhov, the gun never goes off, and the song sweetens — barely — as it moves along. Though that line about the gun got a big laugh when McMurtry played it in Dallas, I still don’t know whether to hear it as a joke or a threat, and McMurtry has never been one to offer the easy comfort of a straight answer.♦
Ruth Graham is a contributing writer for Slate.