story by Michael Tilley
James McMurtry reflexively rejects the notion that any sizeable portion of his discography is devoted to political commentary.
“I do a lot of social commentary, but not a lot of direct political stuff,” McMurtry quickly noted in a recent interview when asked if his upcoming album would reflect the seemingly ever-increasing divisiveness of American politics.
McMurtry and his band are set to play Second Street Live! in Fort Smith on Saturday, Nov. 17. (Link here for ticket info.)
The show begins at 7:30 p.m., which, for anyone accustomed to traveling to George’s in Fayetteville to see McMurtry, will be an early start. It will be interesting to see if McMurtry can fire up the amps before 9:30 p.m.
But when he does fire them up, hang on.
“It will be a pretty rocking show. We ought to be pretty greased up by then,” McMurtry said of the Fort Smith show.
He will be near the middle of a tour that has – by Saturday – traveled through St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indiana, Kentucky, back through Missouri to play in Springfield, and then Fort Smith. Greased up, indeed.
McMurtry, the son of famed author Larry McMurtry, rightfully rejects the political label.
His songs flow smartly through the entanglements of life like water through a loose pile of gravel. Aging. Relationships torn asunder. Travel-induced reflections on aging and relationships torn asunder. Family trauma related to inheritances and holidays. Sexual fantasies about second cousins. “The north Texas, southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry.” Drinking. Drinking too much. The cold weather. The hot weather. Hurricane weather. Single-parent realities. How it used to be. How it should be. What it never was.
Novelist Stephen King said McMurtry “may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation. John Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry’s first album in 1989, said McMurtry “writes like he’s lived a lifetime.”
“We Can’t Make It Here,” one of the songs McMurtry wrote on that first album, could have been written as if he lived in Fort Smith.
“That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore”
McMurtry is the voice for the almost 12,000 families in the Fort Smith region who have been on the front lines of a lost manufacturing job during the past 10 years when the work was shipped overseas or to Mexico.
“See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks”
He hits closer to home with this.
“Now I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
Just like the ones we made before
'Cept this one came from Singapore
I guess we can't make it here anymore”
Although numerous media outlets and music critics have said McMurtry is one of the more pointed protest singer/songwriters playing today, he refuses to be pinned down. He especially refuses to accept that his songs are anti-Republican.
“The main thing that the narrator rails against in the song (We Can’t Make It Here) is outsourcing, which really took wing under Clinton,” McMurtry said.
But he does have clear political opinions.
“It suited me well. I might get some health insurance now,” McMurtry said when asked if he liked the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election. “I don’t understand, if we can pay for two wars, how come we can’t pay for healthcare for people?”
He was surprised to learn that Arkansas voters almost approved a measure to allow medicinal marijuana.
“It amazes me. Pretty much everybody thinks that medicinal marijuana works. There are people that can get no other pain relief. Yet we deny them that in order to keep federal bureaucracies in existence,” McMurtry quickly opined. “It seems like it’s taken an awful long time for common sense to override that (federal position against marijuana).”
But what about the criminal element tied to the drug trade?
“There’s a criminal element tied to banking,” McMurtry immediately retorts.
McMurtry reflexively accepts a media review suggesting he is a “newfangled Chuck Berry with politics and a novelist’s eye.”
“He’s probably my favorite American songwriter. That guy could really turn a phrase,” McMurtry said. “It’s like Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it sings well, because he knows how to sing.”
McMurtry also knows his way around a phrase.
“I don’t want another drink, I only want that last one again. It gave me such a fine glow, smoky and slow,” he sings in “Hurricane Party,” off his last studio album Just Us Kids.
True enough, but it’s a line that could be topped on his upcoming album in which the song character is “washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.”
What is also fair and true enough is that McMurtry’s set is a show any lover of Americana must see. His politics stray to the left, but his sound is right down the middle of a red-white-and-blue music history influenced by the likes of Cash, the aforementioned Berry and any number of the music legends to emerge from Appalachia, Bakersfield, Memphis, Nashville, Okemah, Okla., and east Arkansas.