Not much for small talk, McMurtry speaks through music
James McMurtry, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, is playing at the Mesa Theater at 8 p.m. Thursday. Before that performance, James has graciously agreed to an in-store performance at Triple Play Records at 6 p.m., followed by a short meet-and-greet.
McMurtry, who has been recording since 1989, is the son of renowned author Larry McMurtry. His mother was an English professor. This is a case where the apple truly did not fall very far from the tree. McMurtry has recorded 10 studio and two live records since 1989. He has garnered critical acclaim since the beginning, with author Stephen King, saying “James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation…” Texas Magazine adds “McMurtry writes as though he has spent time eavesdropping on conversations in every Dairy Queen in America.” Also from the magazine: “At a stage where most veteran musicians fall into a groove or rut, McMurtry continues to surprise,”
I recently had the opportunity to talk with McMurtry about his songwriting process.
Rock Cesario: It was almost seven years between “Just Us Kids” and “Complicated Game.” When can we expect another studio album?
James McMurtry: I don’t know.
Cesario: Some singer-songwriters supposedly could write songs on demand. How easy or difficult is it for you to write songs?
McMurtry: I’ve never been able to write good songs on demand. Writing is pretty tedious. It comes in fits and starts. I might crank out a good verse pretty quick, and then have to wait a year for the next verse. “You Got to Me” was 20 years of fits and starts.
Cesario: Do you set out to write specifically for an album or do you write the songs and then put the album together?
McMurtry: I usually bear down and finish the songs when I need to put a record out.
Cesario: Greg Brown told me he wrote over 30 songs for each of his albums. How many do you typically write between albums?
McMurtry: No more than necessary, if I can help it. There might be one or two left over at the end of a session.
Cesario: Do you write the lyrics or music first?
McMurtry: I usually hear a line and a melody together. Then I try to imagine the character that might have said that line. I work outward from the character to the story. A couple of times I’ve written lyrics to music that we’ve already cut. That’s tedious. “Saint Mary of the Woods” was done that way.
Cesario: You are on the road a lot, it seems. Is that where you get most of your material?
McMurtry: I see a lot through the windshield. “Saint Mary of the Woods” and “Choctaw Bingo” both started with signs I saw on the highway.
Cesario: Do you set aside time for songwriting or are you constantly writing songs?
McMurtry: I jot down lines on the iPhone notes app whenever I hear them. I play around with them when I get sick of Google News.
McMurtry is not one for small talk. He speaks to us through his great music, which is fine with me. I hope that you can join us in what should be a great show at the Mesa Theater next Thursday night. Maybe make an evening out of it in downtown Grand Junction.