James McMurtry first emerged on the American music scene of the 1980s via the John Mellencamp-produced Too Long In The Wasteland, the first of a handful of recordings he made for Columbia Records. Since then, songs such as "Levelland" and "Out Here In The Middle" have become staples of the Americana scene — with Robert Earl Keen covering both — joining other McMurtry compositions such as "We Can't Make It Here" and "Choctaw Bingo" as essential listening in an age of unrest and hardships.
McMurtry's latest LP is Complicated Game (2015), his highest-charting record to date and one that further cemented his reputation as a world-class songwriter and performer.
He appears at the McPherson Opera House in McPherson on Saturday, Nov. 10. He spoke with KMUW via phone, from a tour stop in Milwaukee, WI.
I remember, some years ago, you came through Wichita and played at John Barleycorn's. I covered that show for a free weekly here in town. I think I asked your road manager that night if I could have setlist. He just looked at me, shook his head, and said, "There is no setlist, kid." Do you still operate that way in terms of just playing what you feel?
No, I play the set that works and I stick with it ad infinitum, when the band starts to mutiny. When that happens I have to change it up a little bit. It's based on dynamic flow. You learn what song will go into the next. That's why I don't take requests, because that can interrupt the whole flow of the show. David Bromberg does the same thing. He'll tell ‘em, "The only power I have on this [planet] is when I'm up here on this stage and if you think I'm giving any of it up you're crazy. You know what you want to hear but you don't know anything about laying out a set, do ya?"
How long does it take you to find the combination that's going to work in terms of what, in your eyes, is the ideal setlist?
It doesn't take real long. You do it according to groove and key. You don't want too much stuff in the same key. If it is in the same key you want it a different groove so that it doesn't feel like you're playing the same song all night.
You mentioned Bromberg earlier but I was curious if there are artists you went back and watched again and again trying to figure how they put a show together. How they interacted with the audience.
I haven't done that. There are some younger artists that I've been watching lately to try to figure out how they've suddenly blown up big. [Laughs.] We used to tour with Jason Isbell back when we were both in vans. We did an opening run with him earlier this year. Now he's got three busses and a truck, full production, fog machine, the whole nine yards. Playing these 3000 seaters. I can't figure out what he's doing.
He comes out there, the crow tends to be on their feet anyway, but there are several moments during the show when he'll hit a certain frequency in voice and suddenly the crowd's just on their toes. I can't tell what he's singing. I can't tell what the line is because they use in-ear monitors. They're playing these big soupy houses, so there's no stage volume except for drums and guitar amps. I can't hear his voice except for what's echoing back out of the house. So it sounds like he's singing in Martian. But sometimes he hits just the right Martian frequency that, coming from him, it works for people.
I don't know how to do that. I've seen other artists pull off stuff like that. That is something … I'm watching that because I'm going to get too old to tour in a van before too long.
Do you see an end to road years, where you maybe want to stay in Austin?
I can't afford to. The only money I can make is on the road. There is no mailbox money anymore. So, we're going to have to tour bigger, basically. When we get too decrepit to sling our own amps, we're going to need some crew. We do have to figure out how to get up on the next step.
You first emerged as a recording artist in the late 1980s and I'm curious if you felt like you were out of place in the larger music scene. Because, as I think about it, I wonder how many other artists were doing the kind of songwriting that you were doing and the kind of music that you were making.
Steve Earle refers to that time as the Great Credibility Scare of the ‘80s. Nashville was singing guys like him and Darden Smith. New York was signing guys like me and Peter Himmelman. L.A. was signing Will T. Massey and another batch. There was a bunch of us. Not many of us are still out there. I think part of what that was that the labels were making all that money off of people like the Backstreet Boys and Milli Vanilli and getting ridiculed for it, not that they cared that much, but they did want a veneer of credibility, so they signed people like us on the off chance that we might make it.
You've endured. That's not an easy thing to do across the decades. Is it just a matter of, ‘This is what I know how to do and this is what I want to do'?
This is what I'm willing to do. I was willing to get in the van and keep going. I found a bunch of guys that were willing to do the same thing with me. I owe a lot to this band.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.