James McMurtry: Tales from the van

. March 14, 2018.
Roots rocker James McMurtry (above) brings his freshly released, satirical single “State of the Union” along with tourmate John Moreland to perform with local folk artist Andrew Ellis, Friday, March 23 at the Ottawa Tavern.
Roots rocker James McMurtry (above) brings his freshly released, satirical single “State of the Union” along with tourmate John Moreland to perform with local folk artist Andrew Ellis, Friday, March 23 at the Ottawa Tavern.

James McMurtry spends hundreds of hours in a van each year, traveling American’s highways on the way to 100 plus shows with his band. The travel, McMurtry explains, provides the inspiration for his geographic detail-filled songs.

The song “South Dakota,” the story of a young military veteran returning to the small town and family farm from “Complicated Game,” his critically acclaimed 2015 album: “There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/Barbed wire won’t stop the wind/You won’t get nothin’ here but broke and older/If I was you I might re-up again.”

On the road again

I drive around a lot,” McMurtry said. While he frequently writes songs, McMurtry didn’t make ”Complicated Game” until the trigger for a new album: things slowing down on the road.

“I didn’t make a record for four or five years because we didn’t need to,” McMurtry said. “Then the club, attendance started falling off, so we made another one. That’s what they’re for now. We make ‘em so guys like you write about them and write about us and people know we’re coming to town.”

The music business is different now, says McMurtry: “We’re on the road half the year. It’s the only way to make money anymore. The mailbox money isn’t there anymore… I’ve been working for 25 years. It was a completely different world when I started out.”

Getting political

In the last 14 years, McMurtry has released just three studio albums, 2005’s “Childish Things,” which won the Americana Music Association’s album of the year award, 2008’s “Just Us Kids” and then, “Complicated Game.” While his newest album is story based, many of McMurtry’s songs, like the award-winning working-class anthem “We Can’t Make It Here,” are pointedly political.
Asked for his assessment of the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, he replied: “It’s a dangerous situation. To me, it (was) rather analogous to Reagan/Carter. At the time, no one believed Reagan stood a chance in the fall… but the thing I remember most about Reagan is he invented sound bite politics. You could remember what he said. They were so well delivered, and that changed politics. Since then, it’s been the best actor who wins each cycle, and (Bill) Clinton was the best actor anybody’d ever seen.”
Songs from “Complicated Game” make up a good portion of McMurtry’s current set. But he said there are some songs he and the band have to play every night: “There are some places where they don’t get ‘Levelland’,’ like Maine for example. We basically play the same set for a while, then we change it and play that set for awhile.”
Then McMurtry and his three compatriots get back in the van and head down the road, driving up to 10 hours between towns to play shows. If he’s lucky McMurtry may find inspiration for a song on the way.

$18-$20.
7pm. Friday, March 23.

The Ottawa Tavern
1815 Adams St.

419-725-5483 | facebook.com/ot.toledo

  • Lydia Morris

    No where in this article does it describe his type of music.