The Blue Light Chronicles: James McMurtry
I had the chance to sit down with the legendary James McMurtry, on July 28th, before his sound check at The Blue Light here in Lubbock. McMurtry and his band, the Heartless Bastards, have been touring the country hard for many years and this year is no exception. James took a few minutes out of his busy tour to sit down and discuss everything from his new album, “Live in Europe,” to backlash over “We Can’t Make It Here.” Here is the interview, in it’s entirety, from that night.
99.5 The Bear: How is life on the road treating you? I know you have some shows out in Tennessee and Kentucky and then you’re heading out West.
James McMurtry: It’s been pretty good this year; been pretty busy. The attendance has held up despite the economy so it’s good for me
99.5 The Bear: Is it tough to play a town like Lubbock where it’s college based crowds?
James McMurtry: It doesn’t seem to matter for us. We mostly get an older audience anyways. We have kind of a multi-generational crowd. We have second and third generation fans now.
99.5 The Bear: You live and play a lot in Austin. Does an Austin set list differ from a set list for Lubbock?
James McMurtry: Very slightly; it’s all dependent on who I’m working with at the time and what they know.
99.5 The Bear: The last two studio albums were a bit politically driven and you’re playing in a conservative town. Do you expect to play any songs from Childish Things or Just Us Kids tonight?
James McMurtry: Sure I do.
99.5 The Bear: Do you still get any backlash from those albums?
James McMurtry: No, I got backlash for “We Can’t Make it Here” very early on and then that turned around real fast, I noticed. I put out that song as a free download right before the 2004 election and it was taken as an anti [George] Bush song which I was certainly no fan of Bush but a lot of what the narrator of that song really lashes out about was chiefly outsourcing. That really got going under Clinton. Bush didn’t do anything to stop it though because his buddies were getting just as rich as Clinton’s were. When the song came out everyone though I was just ragging on Bush and they took it very personally. Everybody had their identities wrapped up with that guy for some reason. If you even criticize him at all it was a personal front to a lot of people. Very shortly though that turned around, particularly in the northeast Union State like Maine and the New England states I got a big following out of them. Those are the places that lost the most jobs because of outsourcing, so that really connected to them.
99.5 The Bear: You’ve got the new album Live in Europe, can you talk about how that came about?
James McMurtry: We started it out as a DVD project because the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam was wired up for a 5 camera shoot. They had it rigged where you can do a really quality video. There was also a streaming company that was doing and they said for $3000 you can multi track the audio and really mix it nicely. I thought it was a good idea and the label came up with three grand and we shot the thing. What they didn’t tell us was they weren’t saving the raw footage from the video. That means there’s no way to edit the video. These guys were just editing on the fly and picking what camera they wanted and they’re Dutch. The understand English pretty well but they aren’t interested in that part; they’re shooting a band just like they always do. They’d be cutting from a vocal line to the kick drum petal; just bad angles. I realized there was no way I could charge money for that DVD. I listened to the audio and that sounded pretty good so we made a record out of it and used the best of video footage as a bonus DVD.
99.5 The Bear: You’re always considered a father’s of Americana but do you really put labels or categorize your own music?
James McMurtry: No, I prefer that my records be put in the rock section so you can find them and actually buy them but I don’t really care what you call it.
99.5 The Bear: You’re a well-known songwriter but do you see it getting tougher out there for actual singer/songwriters to make a living?
James McMurtry: I don’t know it hasn’t really changed much for me. Bands that can tour cheap in vans can keep going. It’s harder for guys who think they need a tour bus because those things are expensive.
99.5 The Bear: Who is someone you really enjoy listening to these days?
James McMurtry: C.C. Adcock, whenever he comes around. He’s always got something good going. Last time he was in Austin he had that Lil’ Band o’ Gold project going. It was all those old guys from south Louisiana that had hits in the 50s. He just went around and knocked on their door and asked if they wanted to be in his band and a bunch of them did.
99.5 The Bear: What’s on the horizon for you and the Heartless Bastards?
James McMurtry: I don’t know. We’re touring pretty steady for the rest of the year and hopefully we’ll record sometime in the winter if I can come up with some songs. Other than that, the road goes on.
The road does go on for James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards as he’ll be on tour through November. Below if a live performance he did for “We Can’t Make It Here” that he mentioned in this interview. Music critic Robert Christgau ranked “We Can’t Make It Here” as the best song of the 2000s.