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James McMurtry lets the characters in his songs do the talking

James McMurtry plays a sold-out show at City Winery Tuesday night.Mary Keating Bruton

James McMurtry doesn’t let on much. Even in his own promo photos, his blank stare ranges, if just barely, from slightly startled to unmoved, save for a Mona Lisa smile. “Hope you can make something out of it,” he says when our phone interview ends. “Good luck.”

McMurtry’s own label once created a billboard calling the singer/songwriter “the most disinterested man in the world” — a parody of Dos Equis’s “most interesting man in the world” ad campaign. So he’s self-aware — maybe.

When I ask about the billboard, he says: “Oh, yeah. We were just trying to promote that record.”


“But do you think that’s how people see you?”

“I don’t know how they see me. Not my business.”

Still waters run deep. The Texan, who just turned 61, has built a following through his songwriting. Like John Prine, he can touch on some sad, God-awful truth about America or love or family — then have you laughing moments later.

His bread-and-butter are heartland poems like “State of the Union,” at once about a politically divided nation and family: a “fascist” brother who calls the narrator a “snowflake,” a sister with “with a cross on her neck and a nine in her purse.” One of his best-known songs, “Choctaw Bingo,” about a family reunion, ticks every box for American Grotesque: big trucks, McDonald’s, an uncle with a Holstein cow who cooks meth in his Airstream trailer, a quick pit-stop for an SKS rifle, a narrator in love with his cousins. Not much interested in making himself the subject of his songs, McMurtry calls himself a “fiction writer,” a gift he shared with his late father, novelist Larry McMurtry. “I just write it in song rather than prose.”

I called McMurtry ahead of his string of Massachusetts dates this week, including Boston’s City Winery on Tuesday, followed by shows in Amherst, Fall River, and Shirley. (All except Friday’s Fall River show, at the Narrows Center, are sold out.)


Q. Your writing reminds me a lot of John Prine. Was he an influence?

A. I listened to him a lot. He and [Kris] Kristofferson had a similar flair for phrasing. You can talk or sing their lyrics with equal impact. I try to do that.

Q. You’ve said you only write when it’s time to record.

A. We make records when our tour-draw drops off. It used to be, people would tour to support record sales. There are no record sales anymore. Now you put out records to advertise your tours. If your tour-draw holds up, you don’t need to make a record. Once it starts falling, you do. Then we go into the studio so you guys will write about it.

Q. [Laughs] You’ve called yourself a beer salesman.

A. [Musicians] are symbiotically tied to the bar business. If bars don’t stay open, we don’t have a gig. It’s a symbiotic relationship. They’re selling beer, we’re selling tickets.

Q. You have a lot of political songs. But you’ve said some of your narrators might have different political views than you.

A. Certainly. If you’re writing from the point of view of a character who doesn’t agree with you, and you try to inject your own philosophy, you’re gonna break character.


Q. What’s an example?

A.Carlisle’s Haul” is from the point of view of a kid in a commercial fishing town. Everybody’s bitching about the government regulating fisheries. Well, I happen to think we need to regulate fisheries — but I’m not trying to pull my living out of a river or ocean. So I didn’t break character.

Q. Do people ever get confused?

A. Absolutely. “Rachel’s Song,” it’s not a song for Rachel. Rachel is the narrator. But a lot of people don’t get that because I don’t spell it out like Prine or Steve Goodman.

Q. I am an old woman [from Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”].

A. Yeah, or in Goodman’s case, “My name is Penny Evans.” They have to spell it right in the beginning so everybody gets it. Whereas a lot of people think “Rachel’s Song” is sung to Rachel.

Q. Are you in any of your songs?

A. Very few. “12 O’Clock Whistle.” That’s about as autobiographical as I ever get.

Q. What sparked that?

A. I don’t remember. What sparks it is having to make a record, and having to finish these songs and have a job.

Q. OK. But I mean you’ve never written a song where you feel like you’re speaking?

A. Not totally, no. If I wrote just about my life it would bore me.

Q. How will a character come to you?

A. I hear a couple of lines and think: Who might’ve said that? Try to envision the character. I’m a fiction writer. I just write it in song rather than prose.


Q. Your father must’ve been an influence on your fiction writing.

A. Certainly, but more in an oral tradition — he was the guy that held court at the dinner table. I don’t read all that much. He was the reader.

Q. John Mellencamp helped you get your foot in the door.

A. He hired Larry to write a screenplay. I had a demo tape I was gonna pitch around Nashville. Larry was going [to meet Mellencamp one day and] I said, “Give that [tape] to Mr. Mellencamp. Maybe he’ll want to cut one of these songs.” [Mellencamp] didn’t, but he called up and said, “You want to make a record?” I said sure. I wasn’t ready, but didn’t think the door would crack again.

Q. Your dad supported you in wanting to become an artist.

A. Yeah, I think he was perturbed when I dropped out of college, but he didn’t say much about it. I went to college just because that’s what you did. I went to the University of Arizona mostly because I wanted to wander the desert and hunt quail. I think I became a sophomore in four years.


At the Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River. March 24 at 8 p.m. $38. www.narrowscenter.org

Interview was edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.