“I have to keep growing, keep evolving. Not very many musicians make it big enough to retire, and I didn’t want to think about having to do something else.…If you’re lucky, you get to do this for the rest of your life.”
– James McMurtry
James McMurtry wants to make one thing perfectly clear:
“I did not have sexual rela-…”
No, wait, that was another guy, another administration.
How about, “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
No, that was the dad. What McMurtry wants to clarify concerns the song “Cheney’s Toy” from Just Us Kids, released April 15 on Lightning Rod Records. Though there has been a strong strain of social commentary — or hard-boiled realism — running through McMurtry’s music since his 1989 debut Too Long In The Wasteland, he crossed the line into political broadside with 2004′s powerful populist anthem “We Can’t Make It Here”, in which a dispirited, pissed-off narrator holds the Bush administration accountable for the death of the American dream.
First available as a free download, the song — released in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign — raised McMurtry’s profile beyond the ranks of the die-hards, an audience that has grown larger and more diverse as his music has gotten louder and more raucous. Fans who could boogie all night to “Choctaw Bingo” will find a worthy follow-up in the new album’s kickoff track, “Bayou Tortous”, with Louisiana rocker C.C. Adcock joining McMurtry on rave-up guitar. But other cuts rank among his more ruminatively reflective (the title song, the closing “You’d A’ Thought”) and his most explicitly political, with “God Bless America” and “Cheney’s Toy” extending the protest march of “We Can’t Make It Here”.
McMurtry fears that “Cheney’s Toy”, also initially issued as a free download, has been misunderstood. The verses juxtapose the image of “Another unknown soldier/another lesson learned” with the incongruity of a president instructed to “Keep smiling for the camera/Keep waving to the crowd…Stay the course and make your mama proud.” He figured that lines such as “stay the course” would make plain the identity of “Cheney’s Toy”, but early reviews have indicated he’s been too subtle.
“To my mind, the Bush administration has always been a Cheney administration, with Bush fronting it,” he explains. “I thought I’d left enough clues in there to make it obvious that I was talking about Bush as ‘Cheney’s Toy’. Apparently, it’s not obvious, because I’m getting a lot of reviews where they think I’m saying the soldier is the toy. Could be, but that’s not what I meant.”
Ah, the perils of the protest song, a pitfall to which James McMurtry long thought he’d never succumb. Laconic and taciturn, McMurtry has favored a more indirect approach, writing songs with narrators other than himself. His lyrics have rarely been the type that try to persuade the listener to agree with the artist. He’s a private guy, one who minds his own business and whose demeanor suggests that others might better do the same. But he has felt a combination of outrage and helplessness as he’s seen where a president who identifies himself as a fellow Texan has taken the country.
“I generally vote Democratic, but in the state of Texas that doesn’t matter,” he says as we return to the topic of “We Can’t Make It Here”. “So everybody has to do what they can. I had a record deal, so I tried that. It was a change for me, a big leap. Because I hadn’t gotten that ‘in your face.’ I didn’t like it when other songwriters do that; it tended to be detrimental to their art. In trying to make a point, they’d end up writing sermons instead of songs. I got lucky with that one. I got a song out of it.
“When Steve Earle came out with that album The Revolution Starts…Now, I figured that if he could put out a whole album like that, maybe I could get one song on the internet,” he continues. “It spurred me to finish ‘We Can’t Make It Here’. And Steve’s one of those who does a great job of getting his point across without turning his songs into sermons.”
Yet McMurtry recognizes a crucial distinction between that earlier cut and the politically pointed material on his new release. On “We Can’t Make It Here”, the lives and circumstances described weren’t necessarily McMurtry’s, though they plainly touched a responsive chord with more listeners than he had ever reached before. Not all the attention generated by the anthem was positive, particularly early on.
“I put it out as a free download right before the 2004 elections, before we’d even made the rest of the record [Childish Things, released a year later],” he says. “And I got pretty nasty e-mails on my website before I even got home. Before I put it on the internet, I played an acoustic version on KGSR (the Americana-leaning FM station in Austin, where McMurtry has lived since the late 1980s), morning drive-time. A lot of people didn’t like it. Especially in Texas, where they had their identities wrapped up in George Bush.”
On Just Us Kids, McMurtry adopts a variety of narrative personae, some that he identifies with more than others, some with which he doesn’t identify at all. Yet on the political material, there is no distance between the songwriter and his song. The loathing is palpable, and it isn’t covered with a narrative mask.
“I think the label and management and marketing are gonna have to be a little more careful this time not to try to promote me strictly as a political songwriter,” he cautions. “Because it wasn’t the fact that ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ was a political song that made it happen. What made it happen was that it was from the point of view of a character that a whole lot of people could really relate to, see themselves in. I don’t think listeners are necessarily gonna see themselves in ‘Cheney’s Toy’ and ‘God Bless America’. Those songs are more my opinion.”