“Well I’ve been up all night
and I’m down on my back
Workin’ the counter
To take up the slack
‘Cause the money tree’s light
and the whiskey stream’s low
you ain’t worked a week
since July”

by Theresa Mackin

Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry calls his lyrics across the small and somewhat noisy Rhythm Room in central Phoenix on a warm September night. He wears slightly disheveled clothes from sleeping on a tour band and weaves his stories over melodies from underneath his trademark hat and long beard. The song is called “Lights of Cheyenne,” a little unfamiliar to the crowd since it is not on one of his latest records.

McMurtry doesn’t look worried, though. He built his following on his brutally honest lyrics, in this case about some poor soul who can’t fight the up’s and down’s of life anymore.

His songs give a voice to each character McMurtry concocts, and often that character happens to be someone his listeners can identify. Before the character, though, there’s a line he thinks up.

“And if it’s cool enough that I stay up thinking about, I finish the song,” McMurtry said. So the line inspires the whole character’s point of view that he writes from.
He certainly doesn’t lack characters. He has songs come from someone stuck in a hurricane, a woman who slowly lost her true love to war, a methamphetamine addict who lost her babies, a car full of kids and parents on their way to a rural family reunion.

But McMurtry said writing from a place that isn’t necessarily autobiographical can get him into trouble. Listeners will sometimes assume that each song is sung from his point of view. He is especially bemused at people who try to imagine “Rachel’s Song,” a woman’s story of coming to terms with raising her son alone, from a male point of view.

Even worse, “if your character is not trustworthy or bigoted in some way then they’ll take you for a bigot yourself,” McMurtry said. He refers to “Safe Side,” a mock-cautionary tale how dangerous Mexico is because of the stealthy poor people and ravenous drug dealers that McMurtry described as purposefully bigoted.

But it isn’t just the real-world situations and homespun characters McMurtry creates, perhaps with some genetic influence from his novelist father, that set him apart. He has the power to make a conversation sound like a song or put internal thoughts to melodies.
In his songwriting, McMurtry does not lack political opinions.

“Its weird – the Obama election has really shown us who we are and it’s not pretty. I thought we had progressed but really all that meanness just went dormant,” he said.

He also has songs such as “Cheney’s Toy,” referring to former President George W. Bush as a puppet of former vice president Dick Cheney.

by Theresa Mackin

McMurtry has a peculiar outlook on life that comes through best in his lyrics. He can be cynical and morose, but his voice also holds a hint of redemption and optimism. The truth is, he’s just a very honest guy with a penchant for singing and songwriting who decided to make that his career, as he will readily tell you.

His mindset shows through in his opinion on aspiring musicians: either they are dedicated enough to make it or they will give up, period. He would allow one bit of advice, though, that he heard from fellow Texas musician and Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson.

Keep out of jail and pay your taxes.

McMurtry is currently signed to Lightning Rod Records, based in Nashville, Tenn. Logan Rogers, president of the label, said McMurtry was his priority to sign when he started out and his 2008 album, Just Us Kids, was Lightning Rod’s first release.

Rogers said McMurtry’s honesty and “uncompromising music” drew him to the singer, as well as the credibility he brings to anyone he works with.

McMurtry said he and his band are currently working on a new song, with the working title of “How am I gonna find ya now.”

“And it’s warming up nicely
for this time of year
The creeks are still frozen but
the roads are all clear
And I don’t have it in me
to make one more stand
Though I never much cared
for the lights of Cheyenne.”

Lyrics copyright James McMurtry.
Photos taken by Theresa Mackin and used with permission.

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