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A no-bullshit conversation with James McMurtry

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By any sane standard, singer-songwriter James McMurtry is one of the great storytellers of the last few decades. Beginning with his 1989 debut album, Too Long In The Wasteland, McMurtry, son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), has specialized in wiry roots-rock and tales of hard-bitten souls struggling with regret, heartache, and confusion and the day-to-day trials of life.

On his most recent album, 2015's Complicated Game, McMurtry moves from story to story, telling tales of a middle-aged husband surveying his marriage and his fears with a jaundiced eye ("Copper Canteen"), a regretful wedding guest watching the former love of his life walking into the sunset with someone else ("You Got To Me"), and eventually putting himself in the shoes of a person who self-mutilates simply to feel something ("Cutter"). It's a dazzling collection of character studies that's accompanied by some of the most stripped-down, no-bullshit music McMurtry has ever made.

In fact, "no bullshit" is a phrase that could define the man as much as his music. There's no such thing as a dishonest conversation with McMurtry, whether his answers are palatable or not.

For example, he's fine with telling us that his new tour with John Moreland, a devastatingly emotional songwriter with the wounded-heart voice of a soul singer, came about simply because they have the same agent, and that he's yet to hear any of Moreland's music.

He's also fine with mentioning that his recent run of shows with Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit was a bit unsettling.

"We started out doing co-bills with him six or eight years ago," McMurtry says. "Now he's touring with three buses and a semi. It was a little bit of a learning curve being around that kind of production. It was mostly these big theaters, and people would be streaming in for the first half of our set because they weren't in any hurry, and that was when they'd start up the fog machines because they were trying to get the room fogged up for Jason's light show to work. So we were trying to play while this fog was billowing over our heads into the audience. We got the hang of it, though. It was interesting."

McMurtry says it was a bit of an ill fit because while Isbell's songs fit the venues, his did not. "Jason writes big songs," he says. "They're geared for those big rooms. Mine are not. He's got that big drum sound, whereas us we try to play to the space a little more. I tried to be as quiet as possible so that the crowd would quiet down too. Once in a while you could get one of those big rooms just dead quiet where they could listen to every word. He can do that, too — he just has a way bigger sound. His songs have those big choruses; hopefully some of that rubbed off on me."

McMurtry's also honest about not playing his new single, the sardonic, politically tinged "State of the Union," much on the road because it's a mostly acoustic number that hasn't fit in with his full-band performances. The song, a rare dip into current events, talks about a splintered family with various political allegiances trying to get along, partially so they can take their mother to Golden Corral for her birthday. It's far funnier than McMurtry's last politically motivated song, a seething mid-tempo rocker called "We Can't Make It Here," that lays waste to the corporations and politicians whose greed and neglect are destroying the country.

"'State of the Union' is OK," he says. "I can't write about politics all the time because you don't get a lot of good political songs. They turn into sermons and nobody wants to hear 'em. I got lucky with 'We Can't Make It Here.'"

And McMurtry is especially honest about the economics of the modern music business, where artists now make albums to promote their tours, not the other way around.

"It's fine with me, because it's how we're making our living anyway," he says. "We weren't selling that many records, so it wasn't even a transition for us. We just kept doing what we were doing already."

But there's another dose of pungent, blunt truth coming.

"The good news is that you don't need to record that much," says one of the best songwriters of his era. "We record when the tour draw starts falling off. It wasn't that way when I first started out, but I never succeeded in the old business model. The only artist royalties I ever saw on albums were when I learned to get the recording budget low enough that the records would actually recoup their costs. That never happened early on."

This is where it gets intricate, but it's worth noting that McMurtry is working toward a particularly valid point about the post-physical-copy era of the music industry.

"When I was first signed, I was on Columbia, a major label," he says, "and my records cost about a quarter of a million dollars to make. I was working with a lot of [John] Mellencamp's guys with bigtime studio costs, and my royalty rate was about 80 cents a record. So there wasn't any way I was going to pay back a quarter of a million dollars at 80 cents a record; my biggest selling record sold around 70,000 copies. Since then it's all gone to downloads, and the royalty rate on downloads is almost nothing. On streaming it's even less. So it's road money for us just like it always was. It doesn't bother me, but I'd love to see people get better royalties for downloads. Technology has so far outstripped copyright law that it's not ever going to catch up."

This is not to say that you won't enjoy seeing Moreland and McMurtry onstage, playing some of the best-written tunes in their increasingly wide Americana genre. Just don't be surprised if you get a big dose of truth in between songs.

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