Interview: James McMurtry Reflects on Why He Became a Songwriter
"Up until I was about 9 years old, I didn't think about where songs came from. I thought about the singers, I didn't think about the creation of the songs."
For an artist like James McMurtry, it's hard to believe there was ever a time in his life — even when he was just 9 years old — when he wasn't totally and completely aware of what it meant to write a song. Over the last three decades, McMurtry has solidified himself as one of the greatest songwriters alive, earning accolades from everyone from Stephen King to Jason Isbell. But until he was nine, he didn't think much about the craft of writing a song.
"I had a guitar growing up, and my mother taught me chords by the time I was about seven," he tells The Boot via phone, while he was out on the road with Isbell and the 400 Unit. "That's the way I was going because I idolized Johnny Cash."
Kristofferson was the first one who was ever identified to me as a songwriter.
But then, at 9 years old, McMurtry found himself at The Mosque Theater in Richmond, Va., staring at the stage, watching Rita Coolidge open for Kris Kristofferson.
"Kristofferson pointed me the other way," he remembers. "He was the first one who was ever identified to me as a songwriter."
Strangely enough, Kristofferson inspiring McMurtry on that night in 1971 wouldn't be the only connection to his future career: "Kristofferson had a guitar player on that show, a guy named Stephen Bruton," McMurtry tells us. "He wound up in Austin, and we all got to be good friends with him in later years. He actually played with me on my first tour for about two weeks, and he was all over Saint Mary of the Woods and was also on Where'd You Hide the Body. He looked like he was about 14 years old at that show in Richmond, and when I saw him in '89 and told my dad he was coming out on tour with me, Larry said, 'Oh, that nice young man.'
"Apparently, on that same tour I saw him back in '71, he played the Cellar Door in Georgetown, and my dad had a rare bookstore there on 31st Street," McMurtry recalls. "They opened the store, and they were struggling; they didn't have any money and barely had any books. Stephen came in and bought a $50 book, and Larry was rejoicing — that was a big deal in 1971.
"I asked Stephen years later what he bought," McMurtry adds, "and he said, 'Well, I bought [Aleister Crowley's] Diary of a Drug Fiend. I was 22 years old, I had a hat band full of brown mescaline, and I wanted to know what it was all about.'"
Larry McMurtry, of course, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist behind Lonesome Dove, along with other classics such as The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and a number of other writings. The gift of spinning unforgettable stories runs in the family, whether it's in the form of a novel or a four-minute track.
For McMurtry, the connection to that 1971 show in Richmond and the run-in with his dad's bookstore doesn't end with his eventual friendship and collaborations with Bruton. Coolidge, who opened the show, is prepping the release of her brand-new record, Safe in the Arms of Time, with producer Ross Hogarth -- a name that should ring a bell for McMurtry fanatics.
"He recorded and mixed my first two records," McMurtry explains of Hogarth, "and he actually mixed Saint Mary of the Woods, too. He's been a producer for most of his career, but I've never worked with him in that sense."
I have scraps of lyrics on several hard drives and a couple of phones, so I just sort of look at what songs are closest to finished and then think of those as the potential next record.
If all goes well, that will change soon enough.
"I have scraps of lyrics on several hard drives and a couple of phones, so I just sort of look at what songs are closest to finished and then think of those as the potential next record," McMurtry says. "I've been talking to Hogarth about it, and so I am looking forward to working with him as a producer. We've been bouncing that idea back and forth."
Though that conversation has started, there doesn't seem to be a strict timeline for McMurtry's follow-up to 2015's Complicated Game.
"I'm just pecking away on the cell phone as I go down the road. I don't really sit down to write anymore," he admits. "I just keep picking at these songs until they get close to done, and then I see how I can finish them."
And as he's plucking away at new lyrics and riffs, McMurtry will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of 1998's Walk Between the Raindrops this year.
Well, "celebrating" might be too strong of a word.
"I don't really care about milestones or anniversaries," he says. "Once we put those records out, they're done. We rarely listen to them again."
Though the release of Raindrops seems like a lifetime away, McMurtry does recall a sincere highlight from the record.
"There's one track, this baritone guitar track, "Soda and Salt" -- there's this little section where it sounds like there's a piano on it, but there was no piano player anywhere on that record," he tells us with a hint of laughter in his voice. "We couldn't figure it out. The board that it was cut on used to be in the basement of Graceland, and [Elvis Presley's] "In the Ghetto" was cut on that board, so we liked to fantasize that the ghost of Elvis was in there somehow and just decided to put a little piano on our record. We'd isolate every track and we couldn't find it. The engineer said it had something to do with the overtones of the various guitars we had on the song, but it sure sounded like a right-hand piano riff to me."
McMurtry brings the conversation back around to his dad as he shares a similar perspective when it comes to reflecting on past works: "Larry doesn't like to adapt his own books for screenplays," he says. "He learned that on The Last Picture Show because he had to go back and read the damn book again. Once he's written it, he's done with it."
The same goes for his music: "By the time you go through the mixing session and you listen to every track over and over again a million times, you don't want to listen to it again."
Fans should be encouraged, though, because McMurtry's lack of interest in looking back on old albums only means he's looking ahead to new music, to that eventual album with Hogarth.
"It's a gradual process," he admits, "but the cell phone has sort of saved my writing because I don't have to write songs down on bar napkins and lose them anymore."