And the talk of those that wonder
And the talk of those that curse
Let ‘em have their thrill, they’ll need it
We’ll be no more for the worse
–”Melinda”, James McMurtry
James McMurtry is terse to the point of aggression. He speaks in clipped sentences, snapping off words like he’s cutting fence wire. No one warned me before I picked up the phone, McMurtry’s codgery voice on the line. I apologize for the early interview: “Rock ‘n’ rollers sleep in, I’m told.” “Dads get up 7 a.m.,” he replies.
I ask about the musicians on It Had To Happen, his new record and his first for independent label Sugar Hill after a three-album run on Columbia. “I’ve been touring with Ronnie [Johnson] for a couple of years,” he says. “And [Chris] Searles, I don’t remember how I found him. Of course his name and phone number are on every bulletin board in Austin. Drummer de jour. Lisa [Mednick] I’ve known for a few years.” I mention how much I like Mednick, how I’d heard her play with Richard Buckner. He doesn’t know the latter (“I think we share an accountant”) and volunteers nothing on the former.
McMurtry grew up in the likely songwriter soil of West Texas, a land beautifully and fiercely sketched in his song “Levelland” (which recently was recorded by fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen). “Flatter than a table top, makes you wonder why they stopped here,” the song observes; “Wagon must’ve lost a wheel, or they lacked ambition.” The son of parents devoted to language — his mother an English professor, his father an all too famous novelist — he confesses to an unlikely hatred of books and first turned to music with the notion of becoming an ace flatpicker in the Doc Watson mold. His playing isn’t quite that fleet, but he gets an ambling, melodic power from his Telecaster, a rusty jangle that dominates his solo gigs. “I amp the guitar and mike the amp,” he says. “I try to get the sound as big and obnoxious as I can.”
While no artistic comparisons should be viewed with greater skepticism than those that mention Dylan, I count McMurtry as a convincing inheritor. He shares the verbal ingenuity, the restless anger, the same subterranean homesick satire, and owes a considerable debt to Dylan’s manic electrification of folk narratives. His Columbia albums — Too Long in the Wasteland, Candyland and Where’d You Hide the Body — mostly rumble like eight cylinders with the heads uncapped, a guitar-and-drum-saturated sound that doesn’t always give his keen images room to breathe.
It Had To Happen comescloser to welding a Stones-shaped rock with the space his stories need. “There’s a lot less layers,” McMurtry says. “Most of the solos were on the basic tracks. What that does is, even if you replace the solo, you still have it built into the rhythm track, because the drums and the bass are reacting to whatever you did originally. Then you don’t have to stack guitars on top of things and make them lift. They already lift.”
After getting iced by Columbia, McMurtry landed at Sugar Hill and got the inevitable Lloyd Maines as producer, whose touch is light but quietly authoritative. “Lloyd came to the last rehearsal and didn’t really say anything; he just said let’s do it. Wasn’t until we actually got in there that he offered suggestions. He added a few touches that really made things happen, like on that, what’s that song, ‘Are you who you look like or are you just yourself’ ["Be With Me"] — when it came to the verse, Lloyd said, ‘Why don’t you hang on the ‘one’ before going back into the verse and then just jam out.’ I never would have thought of that. Kinda reminds me of [John Mellencamp's] ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking’. We’d been talking about that song. Somebody heard from Bobby Keys that they hadn’t discussed an ending, and didn’t know what the hell to do at the end of the song. That’s how they got that cool sax jam.”
Fetch me the jester, commanded the king
The harder I thrash him, the better he’ll sing
Take him back to the dungeon, give him something to eat
If it weren’t for me, he’d be out on the street
–”Be With Me”
When I try to steer McMurtry back towards the themes of his songs — his persistent questioning of identity, his obsession with the lost understanding of youth, not as a time of innocence, but as something essential to what makes people tick — he gets guarded, the sentences get shorter. But studio work and the contrast of working with a smaller label holds his interest.
“They don’t mess with you,” he says. “Of course they’re workin’ with a lot lower budgets; they’re more responsible fiscally. A label like Columbia, a lot of times the ego gets in the way. They’ll have an A&R guy that wants to put his mark on it and he’ll order a remix and that remix costs money. They’d rather spend the money and get their mark on it; whereas Sugar Hill will listen to and think, ‘It’s fine.’ Consequently you don’t think it to death before it gets out. You just don’t have time to worry about every little thing; in that way it’s more conducive to making music.
“On a big label thing you’ll mix a song a day. And they might spend six hours just putting drum sounds up, getting the right verbs on those things. And it does work; the stuff really does sound good. On an indie label mix, you’ll mix the whole thing in three days, and it’ll sound good too. Every verb on every drum won’t sound perfect to some L.A. engineer’s ears, but it’ll be fine. And also it gets a raw, live quality about it that’s easy to lose if you go mixing everything to death. The new one was cut, mixed and mastered in 10 days.”