“Rock & Roots or Roots & Roll, whatever you want to call it – we challenge you to find a description that fits other than good music you can count on when you thought maybe you just couldn’t count on music anymore!” That quote from Lilly Ruby, the Webmaster of www.jamesmccmurtry.com is one of the first things you see when on the site. It’s fitting since James McMurtry seems much more concerned about making quality music than he is about where it might fit in terms of genre. McMurtry’s rock songs, which feature strong narratives often about people on hard times, continue to win him fans across genres. I was fortunate enough to speak with him recently about his tour of Europe, the live record that resulted, the state of the music industry, the current political landscape and some his own musical interests.
CMP: First off, the record, “Live in Europe,” sounds great.
CMP: Was it easier to get the mix right the second time? I know you talked about that being tough on the first live record (“Live in Aught-Three”).
JM: It was about the same. I learned to do a little better mic positions so I don’t have so many esses to have to carve out of it. Of course, we had keyboards on most of it, so that gives you an extra color to paint with.
CMP: What made you choose Europe for the record?
JM: Well, we had put off doing that. We were always scared of the overhead. You know, they don’t have Motel 6 over there. And, the exchange rate’s not real friendly, so everything there costs more. But, we got on a roll with, “We Can’t Make It Here.” You got to do it someday, so we thought it was the best time to start. It turned out Mac (Ian McLagan – from Faces) didn’t have to do anything at the time, so he went over there with us. That helped a lot, especially in the UK. We recorded at the Paradiso just because they were set up for it. It was originally just supposed to be a DVD project. We had to spend three grand to multi-track it so we could mix it properly. That part was good, but what I didn’t know was that the video was just mixed on the fly. They didn’t save the raw footage, so I couldn’t go back and edit it. That’s why you have those weird cross-stage shots at Mac through a forest of microphones because it was just remote cameras on the wall moving around according to the director’s whim. You know, this guy’s very nice and very professional, but he’s Dutch. He speaks English, but he’s about three words behind us. They were shooting us like they know how to shoot a band. I figured I can’t really charge money just for that. So, I went ahead and made the record and just did the DVD as a bonus. They also did vinyl on it; that was pretty cool.
CMP: How many copies did they print of the vinyl?
JM: I don’t know. We’re still selling them.
CMP: Was it a limited run/one-time deal?
JM: No, if they sell out, I’m sure they’ll do another run. Vinyl moves pretty well, these days. They have those things where you can rip vinyl down to your computer and make an audio file out of it.
CMP: I guess the European tour went well. I believe you have some more dates coming up.
JM: No, we did two European tours. We did one in the spring with Mac, and then we went back in the fall, back to the UK, Holland and Belgium – just us. So we’re done with Europe for a little while. We probably want to do another studio record before we go back there.
CMP: You felt pretty well received, I guess?
JM: Yeah, for a first time over there without losing money – it’s pretty unusual. We learned a lot of things about the business there. All we knew ahead of time is that you can’t just have a distribution deal there. You have to have licensees in every country because distribution in Europe just means your records go to a different distribution center, but if you don’t have a licensee to come pick them and put them in the stores, you’re not going to move any product. So, we’ve got to work on that. We have one European licensee in Germany, which does great in Germany, but when you try to go to England, it’s hard to get any press because the British hate the Germans. So, you’ve got to have an English licensee and English publicist and all that. It’s the same for France and Italy. So, we’re trying to put it all together.
CMP: How did the duet with Jon Dee Graham come about?
JM: Well, we do a regular gig together. When we’re home, we both play Wednesday nights at the Continental Club in Austin. And the guy that put the whole tour together is a big Jon Dee fan. Also, Jon Dee is with Blue Rose Records, which is the German licensee, and they put that whole thing together. They wanted Jon Dee, and a lot of the promoters did, too. So, it worked out; we rode the same van, same tour manager – whole thing.
CMP: So Wednesday nights at the Continental Club ya’ll normally play together?
JM: He plays at 10:30, and we play at midnight.
CMP: I caught your show in Little Rock with Drive-by Truckers last fall. During the show, I noticed when someone requested a song, your comment was, “Some of you know what you want to hear, but you don’t know what you’re going to hear.”
JM: Yeah, none of you know what you’re going to hear.
CMP: So, is the set list pretty set?
JM: Yeah, it’s pretty set, and you can’t just deviate from it on a dime. Sometimes somebody will call out something that will work. I stole the concept from David Bromberg. His line is, “You guys know what you want to hear, but none of you know how to lay out a set. Do you?” Then he says, “The only power we have in this world is when we’re on stage. If you think we’re going to give up a little bit of it, you’re dreaming.”
CMP: Well, I know in other interviews you’ve talked about, at times, being uncomfortable playing to a crowd, but obviously, you’re live show’s very important to you.
JM: Yeah, I’m getting better at it.
CMP: So, you’re getting more comfortable?
JM: Yeah. Well, you know, after twenty years as a recording artist.
CMP: Yeah. Obviously live music does seem to mean a lot to you specifically. What does it mean to you?
JM: Right now, it’s the only way to keep a music career going. You pretty much have to tour. Record sales are not what they used to be. If you don’t have your songs in a big movie, then you better be able to tour.
CMP: Speaking of the industry, you’ve been on a major label as well as a few independents, and there’s been a lot of upheaval in the industry with the rise of mp3, along with plenty of other things. Any thoughts on where the industry is going?
JM: Nobody really knows. The thought in the back of my mind is that the labels will eventually get control of it again. They pretty much always do.
CMP: Obviously, cd sales are down across the board. Vinyl, at least, has seen a bit of resurgence. How do you feel the shift to mp3 has affected everything?
JM: I don’t really know. I don’t think we get as good of royalty rates through iTunes as we did off our products. So that’s kind of a drag, but they pretty much own everything now.
CMP: I noticed that you had some extra tracks at emusic with the “Just Us Kids” release. How do you feel about emusic?
JM: I really haven’t had much to do with that. It sounds like a good idea – any way to get your music out; there is a benefit to it.
CMP: How about radio – Internet radio, XM?
JM: That’s helped a lot. It helped even more before the merger because Jessie Scott, at XM, had that show, X Country. We got a lot of play from her. She got fired after they merged with Sirius. But Mojo still plays us and the Loft still plays us. So, we’re doing all right.
CMP: I’ve found it interesting that the artists I’ve heard you talk about – like Little Feat and Sonny Landreth, among others – are people that tend be thought of more as musicians rather than songwriters. Is it fair to say that you gravitate towards that in terms of what you listen to?
JM: Yeah, definitely. The sound is the draw. You listen with your ears mostly. A lot of them are good songwriters, too – C.C. Adcock, for one. That record he did, “Lafayette Marquis” was a great record, very well written songs. I think my favorite record right now is Danny Barnes’ “Pizza Box,” which he just put out. He’s on ATO, Dave Matthews’ label. The songs are good and the sound’s good – just the whole package.
CMP: With the last few records, you’ve been more openly political in your writing. One writer had said you had the “Bush-Cheney Blues.” I’m curious how you feel about the current political landscape.
JM: I can’t get my head around it. It’s really strange. The “upset” in Massachusetts didn’t surprise me all that much. I remember the footage of the busing riots in Boston in the 70s. That state isn’t as blue to me as everybody seems to think it is. The Democrats really should have been watching. I suspect they let it go because they really didn’t want to vote on healthcare because they’re in the same pockets as the Republicans. They’re all beholden to the healthcare industry. It’s a real drag. I’d like to get some healthcare.
CMP: Any comments on your governor (Rick Perry – Texas)?
JM: Well, I never much cared for Perry. I don’t know where he came from. Basically, he got in because they had a really progressive, left-leaning agriculture commissioner by the name of Jim Hightower, who’s now a radio personality. And the companies that make pesticides and fertilizer really didn’t like him. Farm Bureau, consequently, didn’t like him either. They did an all-out campaign to get rid of him and they installed Rick Perry as ag commissioner. I had never heard of him before. He’s got great hair you know, but I don’t like him. Among other things, he pushes all this gay bashing legislation.
CMP: So, there’s plenty of fodder for new songs, I suppose.
JM: Oh yeah. I’m not real happy with Obama right now. He’s just not enough of a fighter. He thinks he can get people to agree on stuff, and it’s just not going to happen. If he doesn’t learn a few LBJ tricks, he’s not going to get anything done.
CMP: I know you mentioned one new record already. Are there any specific artists you’re really enjoying right now?
JM: I ran across a guy named John Fullbright from Oklahoma. I went down to the Continental Gallery last week, and Jon Dee was doing his thing in the Gallery, which is upstairs – kind of a wine bar at the Continental Club. He does this thing every Sunday called “Jon Dee and Friends” and his friend that week was this kid from Oklahoma, who’s about 22. I only heard the last half of the last song. I could hear him from across the street, and I thought, “Man, that sounds like money to me.” A lot like Steve Earle – he’s got that same quality to his voice, only he enunciates better, writes really well. He can go places if he wants to. I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet. He likes living out in the woods, and he’s not sure he wants to get into the fray. I hope he does.
CMP: Well, thanks for taking the time. I actually have family in Austin, so I’ll have to catch you sometime at the Continental Club.
JM: Cool. Come on down.