In every song, James McMurtry aims to write about Americans’ lives, but it’s unlike anything you’ll hear on country music radio.
The Texas singer-songwriter chooses down-on-their-luck ranchers, West Texas ruralites and union workers as his subjects.
“I attempt to break myths sometimes, the myth of the pastoral, rural American life,” McMurtry said. “I think most rural pursuits are pretty brutal.”
On long tours across the countryside, McMurtry, 53, eavesdrops on conversations in diners and spends a lot of time seeing the nation through a windshield. Those images and stories fuel his songwriting.
“I’m a fiction writer, basically,” he said. “I make up stuff that is close to reality.”
McMurtry will drive to Baton Rouge when he plays Thursday on a short solo tour. The show is part of the Red Dragon Listening Room’s Singer-Songwriter Series at Manship Theatre. Baton Rouge-based songwriter Steve Judice will open.
Speaking from his home in Austin, McMurtry said he plans to play a mix of songs from his nine studio albums, including last year’s “Complicated Game,” produced after a seven-year break from recording.
“Complicated Game” includes the types of music that has defined McMurtry’s work for two decades now. You can hear the fast-paced travelogue “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” and artful portrayals of the common man. “South Dakota” tells the story of a man who returns to his family’s ranch after a tour in the military.
Serving in the Middle East was tough and potentially deadly. However, the farm is brutal in its own way, his father says in the song’s chorus.
“Because there ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota. And barbed wire won’t stop the wind,” McMurtry sings. “You won’t get nothing here but broke and older. If I was you, I might re-up again.”
McMurtry grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Virginia. As a kid, he was drawn to country artists like Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall. Songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s poetic attention to the craft showed McMurtry what country music could be in its highest form.
“It had all that great stuff ... intricate narratives, excellent attention to meter and rhyme,” McMurtry said.
After writing and performing songs while in college in Arizona, McMurtry began working toward a career writing songs for Nashville publishing companies.
“I knew it was possible,” he said. “I didn’t know it was possible to get my own record deal.”
Early on, McMurtry’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, supported his songwriting. After meeting musician John Mellencamp on a movie project, Larry McMurtry passed his son’s work onto the singer-songwriter. Mellencamp loved McMurtry’s work and offered to produce his first album, “Too Long in the Wasteland.”
For most of his career, McMurtry’s work has spread by word of mouth and airplay from Americana-focused radio stations. Mainstream country radio won’t touch his work, much like it avoids the songs of Hall and Kristofferson.
“You couldn’t get that on country radio anymore,” McMurtry said. “They want nothing but beer and trucks.”