Not a bookworm, James McMurtry still delivers tall tales

James McMurtry played with Todd Snider and Paul Thorn for the Songwriter Showcase on Saturday, April 6, at the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa.
Photo by Brian T. Akinson

Here’s a plot twist: The son of an acclaimed novelist, James McMurtry is revered for his songwriting and poetry. But he’s not a voracious reader. “Books are not my thing,” he said.

In a phone interview with Tahoe Onstage, McMurtry, 57, explained his songwriting process.

“I hear a couple lines, a melody in my head, and if it’s cool enough, I’ll keep picking at it and adding to it and maybe it makes a song,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of files on the laptop that I can scan through over the years. It’s like working through a scrap pile. I just try to follow the words where they lead.”

His song “State of the Union” is his latest release in which he describes contrasting views within a family, including a member who’ll “tell you it’s tough to be white.” McMurtry explained, “This song, like most of my songs, is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of my characters to actual persons, living or deceased, is just plain lucky.”

The songwriter’s real-life father is Larry McMurtry, 82, an author and screenwriter for mostly Western-themed works such as the “Lonesome Dove” series, “The Last Picture Show,” and co-writing “Brokeback Mountain.”

“People have been saying my writing is genetic ever since I’ve started writing,” James McMurtry said. “It puzzles me because there are no writers in Larry’s background whatsoever that we know of. Nobody even read for pleasure. They read for information strictly.

“Reading was something I was forced to do in school. I didn’t want to do it on my own. Also, Larry collected books. Books were wallpaper. They lined the walls. Every house we ever lived in was shelved, floor to ceiling. We had to move those damned things every time we moved, which was pretty often.”

Nonetheless, McMurtry was influenced by his father’s voice and taste in music. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash records were played, and Larry McMurtry told stories at the dinner table.

“(My father) was raised in his early years. They were on a ranch and everything they ate came from that ranch. They had radio but they were just in the habit of going out on the porch in the evening and telling those stories over and over again. So he caught the tail end of that American oral tradition and he passed some of that on.”

James McMurtry’s musical accolades are noteworthy. Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers said, “McMurtry might be the best topical writer performing right now.” Voice of America wrote that his songs’ characters seem “so real that you’re sure they going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes.”

The 2004 song about military veterans, the economy and society, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” captured the nation’s attention, including riled-up George W. Bush supporters in McMurtry’s home state of Texas.

He sings about a further divided nation in “State of the Union.”

Can it be healed?

“Probably not,” McMurtry said.

“The media is what’s torn us apart. Back during the Vietnam era, whether you were for the war or against it, you listened to Walter Cronkite. Everybody listened to Uncle Walter, left, right or center. But now cable TV came along, and everybody has their own channel, so they don’t have to hear any views that don’t directly align with theirs and it creates multiple realities. … Now everything is spoon fed and it’s mostly because they’re trying to sell stuff. They will tell you what you want so you will see the ad.”

— Tim Parsons


About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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