By K. Tighe
On a morning just before the 2004 election, a beloved Texas songwriter penned a weary state of the union. He recorded an acoustic cut, added some radio-friendly bleeps and drove the newborn song down to his local radio station. “By the time I got home, I had a lot of nasty emails,” explains James McMurtry.
Up until that fateful morning, the Austin troubadour had made a point of avoiding political songs. “It’s really hard to write a good political song—nobody wants to be preached at,” he says. But McMurtry just couldn’t shake that no one was speaking up for the disenfranchised worker. No one was talking about the economic draft, or the erosion of civil liberties under a power-hungry administration. “For awhile, people were afraid to take a stand for fear it would damage their careers,” he says of fellow skittish musicians. “It seems to me your career’s a lot more damaged once you don’t have any civil rights left.”
Musicians of the time had just seen the Dixie Chicks bulldozed—literally, as album-crushing demonstrations began cropping up around certain parts of the country—for speaking out. “The Dixie Chicks came out on top of that one,” McMurtry says with a laugh. “They must have been laughing all the way to the bank because those rednecks had to buy every one of those CDs they ran over.” Still, it stood to reason that at the time, speaking up during wartime might be the kiss of death—especially for country-music artists.
That’s not to say that no one in the heartland was singing out; no one could possibly get Steve Earle or Kris Kristofferson to shut up. (And really, what music fan would ever want to?) But McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore” hit home with a lot of folks. It was an anthem fueled from pure disgust with the status quo. The songwriter battled through working-class narratives, sans white gloves. There it was, poking out between the accomplished strums of McMurtry’s guitar—America’s embarrassment, all wrapped up in a neat little package. He fired through topics like the outsourcing of American jobs, “Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin?…Or the shape of their eyes? Or the shape I’m in?? Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today?? No I hate the men sent the jobs away.” He spoke bluntly about the purveyors of a certain war, one that was built on the backs of America’s working class. “They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need…Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed. Their kids won’t bleed in the damn little war.” In short, he summed up a nation’s shortcomings in such a way that even naysayers found it impossible to argue with: “And that’s how it is.? That’s what we got—if the president wants to admit it or not.”
The flack that McMurtry caught early on subsided immediately—these weren’t the leftist ramblings of a freak-folk burn-out—this was a reasonable man, telling it like it was. “Even the people that didn’t like the sentiment were at least willing to discuss it.” The track—which was initially released on MP3—made its way onto “Childish Things,” an album that went on to top a slew of “Best of” lists and purportedly, Senator Chris Dodd’s iTunes playlist.
Suffice to say that McMurtry has won leagues of fans since the song’s release. Those lucky new fans get to explore the singer’s teeming back catalogue—which dates back to 1989—while they wait for a new album. In the mean time, McMurtry has recorded “God Bless America,” the scathing, albeit far more comical, follow-up to his original anthem. “‘You Can’t Make it Here’ is sort of an editorial,” he explains. “I guess that makes ‘God Bless America’ the cartoon at the top of the editorial page.”
Although he’d have no problem coasting on the steam of “Childish Things,” McMurtry has a new album in the works. Scheduled for release this April, the new studio album will be distributed by start-up indie Lightening Rod. According to McMurtry, we can expect some more political numbers out of him.
It seems that after the wild success of “You Can’t Make it Here” the songwriter is through shying away from such topics. He even penned an open letter to his fellow musicians in Billboard magazine, urging them to keep the politics in their music. In the letter, he insisted that a musician’s job is not to be loved, but to be remembered.
When I ask him about the letter, McMurtry earnestly says, “It seems that this administration has done its best to turn into a dictatorship. Functionally, it already is—always was. He [Bush] just came right out and started dictating policy. And we let him do it. Nobody stood up. Everyone just rolled over.”
One thing’s for sure—McMurtry’s anthems have made scores of listeners sick of rolling over. “The popularity of a song has more to do with the listener than the writer,” he says. “People have to identify. A bunch of people identified with this, which is good for me, but kind of scary for the rest of the country.”
James McMurtry plays December 28-29 at Martyrs, 3855 North Lincoln, (773)404-9494, at 9pm. $22.