James McMurtry talks return to road, live streams
James McMurtry performs at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine, Sunday, October 24 at 4 p.m.
The Texas-based musician released The Horses and the Hounds, his first album since 2015, earlier this year to wide acclaim. The LP marks his first as part of a new deal with storied Americana imprint New West.
It also marks a return to his working relationship with Ross Hogarth, who produced the new record and who served as engineer on McMurtry’s first two albums. Tracked at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters in Santa Monica, California, the record features some of McMurtry’s finest writing to date via songs such as “If It Don’t Bleed,” “Canola Fields,” and “Decent Man.”
The singer-songwriter spoke with KMUW and discussed the current landscape for live music.
Live performance is such a critical part of being a musician. It's really where many performers make their living these days. So how did you adapt in 2020 when the pandemic started?
I did it with live streams. I learned how to stream twice a week and people were very generous tippers. They still are kinda. For a while there the employment dried up so the tips fell off but the fans are still very generous.
What was the learning curve like for you with streaming performances?
I'm not very computer savvy. I'm pretty much a Luddite. So I learned from young techs that worked for various venues like FitzGerald’s in Chicago; they had to figure out how to keep going. So they started doing live streams based in Chicago with their tech guy. So I’d link up to whatever link he had, and as I just learned piece by piece. For a while, I was just doing Facebook, and then Kevin [Russell] from Shinyribs] hipped me to Restream, where I could go to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch all at the same time, which improved matters.
And then somehow my OBS software got scrambled, I couldn't get it to sync up. So it seemed like every time you learn something, somebody upgrades something or what worked last week just doesn't work this week. I don’t know why that is. You think you’ve got sufficient internet speed and then either your speed falls off or the speed you’re at is no longer sufficient. I don't understand any of this stuff. But I managed to keep up with it. Barely.
One of the things that 2020 did was I think change the way that people will be touring or start to suggest some changes. I know that Todd Rundgren, for instance, took his band to Chicago and they performed their tour on a soundstage. One night it was a performance for Buffalo, the next night was a performance for Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, whatever it was. I think he said that another thing to consider is the huge carbon footprint that touring leaves.
He ran into a lot of scheduling conflicts, you know, he's doing a lot of fly tours. Flights get canceled left, right and center these days because the weather is so weird. If the planes can’t fly out of Tampa, then your plane is not like to get to San Antonio to take you to where you’re going. I don’t like to fly anymore. Rental vehicles have gotten real high. Fuel’s real high. I canceled a band tour that we had in November in part because I couldn’t get everybody to get behind my COVID protocols.
And also in part because nobody out there is making any money; they’re driving around with the same tour expenses that they used to have, but they're getting half houses and they're not getting the overage. So I ran the numbers on that tour based on worst case scenario with no back end on any of the deals and the margin was just too slim. Over 20 days I was looking at $2,000 just in fuel. That’s just for a van. I’d hate to be putting diesel in a bus right now.
As you were able to get back to performances in front of live audiences at venues, what had changed? What was the same? Did you have a different set of nerves about performing all of a sudden?
Well, solo gigs are easy, because I've never done a solo streaming thing every week, twice a week That came together pretty quick. The stage is easy. The phone doesn’t ring on stage.