Interview: Traveler's tale-- Roots rocker McMurtry tells all
He's a "poet of the people," according to the Village Voice, a true storyteller from an aging – yet apparently still relevant – generation. Praised by celebrities, musicians, and industry critics alike, roots rocker James McMurtry has spent the last three decades a compelling Americana songwriter – writing fierce, at times politically provocative lyrics to accompany his consummate guitar skills.
"You have to know how to play live – a lot of bands don't anymore," McMurtry says; he showed his own hand on 2004's Live In Aught-Three, and then again at a Gravity Lounge show last year. After two more studio albums, he embarked on his first European tour in early 2009, which turned into another live album, Live in Europe, due out October 13. No matter how good it is, seeing him in the flesh will probably be better.
The Hook: You were born Texan and raised Virginian– which Southern style influenced you the most?
James McMurtry: Virginia and Texas both seem distinct from "Southern" for me– even the accents are different.
The Hook: What makes live albums so important to you?
JM: I've always preferred live albums. In the '70s, that's what we wanted– the Allman Brothers live or Waiting for Columbus by Little Feat were the only albums anyone wanted. In the '80s, live records started getting a bad name, because record deals were structured in such a way that artists used live records to get out of their contract. To me, it's harder to make a good live record than a studio one.
The Hook:What are the elements necessary for a successful live record?
JM: You have to know where to record it– some clubs lend themselves to recording, some just don't. You have to tour enough to know which rooms sound good. It's the same for audience. You want a certain energy, you want a multi-age crowd.
The Hook: How did your Americana go over in Europe?
JM: The Germans seemed to be very polite, but they were always about three words behind on any song– so you don't feel like you're getting good energy back from the audience. We went through the UK, Holland, and Belgium, and we're going back pretty soon.
The Hook: You've been called the "Poet of the People"– are you the right representative for the public?
JM: No, people should have lots of representatives– I can represent a few some of the time. When we put out [2004 hit] "We Can't Make It Here," I realized that now I'm supposed to be a political writer and I shouldn't shy away from it.
The Hook: Has anything in today's political environment inspired a "We Can't Make It Here, Part II?"
JM: The election surprised me– I didn't think Obama was going to win, but I'm glad he did. There's all this weirdness going on right now, all these town hall meetings and people not wanting their kids to hear a president's speech. It's the most bizarre turn of events– if LBJ wanted to speak, every TV set in the country would have been on, and nobody would have questioned it.
James McMurtry plays at the Fry's Spring Beach Club on 9/18. The show starts at 8:00 pm, and tickets are $15.