How I Write a Song: James McMurtry

In this new series for Americana UK, artists from across the genre discuss their approach to song-writing. It’s been more than 30 years now since a youthful, up-and-coming  James McMurtry first crossed paths with another, already renowned fellow Texan singer-songwriter, the late Guy Clark, at an open-mike session in Kerrville near San Antonio. Rather than proving a massively inspirational encounter, McMurtry once recalled in an interview in lonestarmusicmagazine  that his overriding memory of Clark that particular day was the “awfully gracious manner for a man who’d been forced to stand under a tree in Kerr County on a hot afternoon listening to a bunch of us young’uns try to impress him with our songs.”

Yet  even so, down through the years there’s a line of Clark’s that’s always rung true for McMurtry as he’s gone on composing himself and building up a portfolio of 11 albums and counting: “some days you write the song, some days – the song writes you.”

Because as McMurtry  tells Americana UK,  one thing he’s found when writing his pithy, sometimes wryly humorous, sometimes harrowing songs on the inner workings of American society,  is that it’s never 100 per cent certain he will relate to a piece he’s previously written. Occasionally he’s just left baffled where it’s come from.

“Some of them, you think, my God, did I write that? Why me? You have to be open to the song,   there’s no set rule about it,” McMurtry reflects.“I work on a scrap pile [of ideas] which goes back years, and I’ll be scrolling through it and every now and then I’ll say ‘I don’t remember what mindset was I in, how did that get to me?’ But that probably happens in any art form.”

Whether he knows or not how certain songs have crystallised in his brain, most would agree that there’s some extremely powerful empathy in a hefty percentage of McMurtry’s work for the great unheard voices of America – that is, the average  Joe and/or Josephine. But over the years that deep empathy has come with an unexpected price tag: the development of an urban myth that McMurtry’s songwriting is largely based on listening in on everyday conversations in unremarkable downtown bars or popular fast food outlets.

There’s certainly no denying the grainy everyday reality of some of his music, and that’s surely part of its huge appeal. But rather than McMurtry being wired up every time he slides into a booth of a Whataburger or Dairy Queen for a meal and then reproducing whatever he overhears as soon as he gets home, McMurtry says the contents of his music are “a combination of what I see and imagination. Sometimes it’s what it is, sometimes it’s what could be.”

There’s room in his songs for elements of idealism, he agrees  –  there’s certainly deep seams of acerbic political observation in the bedrock of some of his songs –   “or just fiction writing. You get to make stuff up, mess with things.”

“ One of the problems you get into is that I write from the point of view of characters but it’s still my voice singing it. So people think it has to be my opinion, when sometimes my characters disagree with me but I have to stay in character to get the voice across.”

“There’s also ‘cos I happen to be male and my voice sounds male for the most part but some of my narrators are female. People don’t get that about ‘Rachel’s Song’ – off  ‘Where D’You Hide The Body’ (1995) –  they think it’s   ‘The Song For Rachel’. But it’s not.”

A key shift very early on in his songs was switching from using the third person to writing in the first person more – originally “I still had characters, but I wasn’t writing from their point of view” is how he puts it. Meanwhile,  the influence of McMurtry’s mentors at that time was most notable in his approach to performance, not composition style.

“I hung out with Fred Koller a lot, everybody did. He used to come down to Kerrville folk festival. Fred was a very successful songwriter in the 1980s, he had a writing partner named Pat Alger and they would pitch songs for Kathy Mattea and people like that, had some number one country hits back when the copyright was really worth something.”

“I can’t say if he really taught me anything but he did give me confidence. He’d said ‘you’ve kind of got this down, just keep doing it, improve your stage set’ because my guitar tone was terrible, I couldn’t hardly sing…”

Whether it was back in 1989, when McMurtry was nervously getting a demo tape of songs to John Mellencamp – his first breakthrough –   or preparing his new album – as he is now in 2020 –  identifying a line or a thought that can become a song, McMurtry says, still follows a similar trail. Mostly it’s a question of being struck by a couple of words or a melody and asking himself “who might have said that, ” and then “going backward to the story.”

However, just as he doesn’t know what that character might be like, let alone identify with what they’re saying, there’s absolutely no predicting when that moment of inspiration will happen. A classic example of that, he says, is ‘Ruby and Carlos’ – a song in his second last album, ‘Just Us Kids’ – where the storyline began unfolding in his head when he and the rest of his band were wandering out of a singularly unimpressive waffle-house restaurant in Maryland.

“That’s right near the Mason-Dixon line” – still used figuratively to define the difference between the North and the South in the USA – “and some waffle house restaurants operate like NASA but some of them don’t, and it’s interesting, it’s usually the ones run by black people that work really well and efficiently, the ones run by white meth-heads don’t work so efficiently. “

”So we came out of one of the white meth-head waffle-houses and Tim Holt – that used be our soundman, now he’s our second guitarist – says as we’re getting into the van, ‘Well, I guess we must have crossed the Mason-Dumbass line’. And I took that line and I was thinking, well,  ‘who would say that’ and somehow I came up with the character of Ruby.”

While character-building, in the figurative sense, is “usually how I do it, sometimes I just start playing off the words.”

“There’s a song on ‘Complicated Game’ (2015) called  ‘Ain’t Got A Place’ where I started with “The skies are taller in Louisiana, the skies are wider in New Mexico” and after that I just started playing with opposites. So the second last verse goes “Looking up at a constellation, looking down at the frozen ground, looking out for all my interests, looking in just brings me down.” You got Up-Down-Out-In: it was a kind of exercise.”

Not that the order is always the words first/music second, though. Another one of his oldest songs, ‘Charlemagne’s Old Town’  – off ‘Childish Things’ (2005) – was written “when I didn’t even know where that town actually was. That was total fishing.  It came out of that turquoise baritone guitar I bought that I’d used for ‘Levelland’.” – one of his best-known songs on ‘Where D’you Find The Body’.  “I was messing around with some kind of weird tuning, it was just a line or melody developed into that story.”

Years later, though, McMurtry says reality finally fused with fiction when he played a gig in what could have been Charlemagne’s old town – several in Germany and East Belgium are possible candidates –   “and a German woman came up afterwards and said ‘very nice of you to write that one for my place’. So I finally found out.”

When it comes to Americana, we’re currently in an era when “stripped back” styles and  “less is more”  attitudes towards songwriting and production are all but placed on pedestals  – all in the name of that elusive concept, ‘greater authenticity.’ So it might come as a surprise that McMurtry, so often seen as a past master of concise, punchy verse, does not always go along with that particular theory, at least in terms of the song itself.

“I usually have to cut verses, but I don’t believe that that’s an ironclad rule.  I don’t believe there are any ironclad rules.  Back on my first record, I  was  told ‘you got to get to the chorus quick cos that’s what radio wants, and that’s what they always wanted.’ But  ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was a huge hit and it’s about a million years long, and it has a hook, but it has no chorus, either. Bob Dylan could do that: so there are always exceptions to the conventional rule.”

“Some songs are better wordy: Springsteen, definitely  – ‘Rosalia’, that’s got  more words than there are in  a phone book.” Furthermore, McMurtry points out,  some songs aren’t so long time-wise “but they have more words in them just ‘cos they work that way. Not every song needs to be cut. Some of them are good [being] wordy.”

However he agrees with British folk great Richard Thompson’s observation that it’s best not to have a guitar or other instrument at hand when songwriting, because that way you avoid heading into your ‘comfort zones’ of familiar chord sequences and have to work with your imagination more.

“I hadn’t thought about it but he’s probably right. Most of my last record was written on an iPhone 3 where I had no guitar anywhere near. I don’t know if I did anything all that different, in terms of composition, but I wish I hadn’t dropped that phone because it had that wonderful Notes app. that looked like a legal pad, which is what I used to write on for many years, in yellow and green and I could use a black felt pen. With a 75 Watt incandescent light bulb, it’d be perfect. But you can’t find those bulbs anymore either.”

Warming to his point about the importance of immediate surroundings, he adds. “There’s definitely something about light and the way it acts on your brain that does affect your writing. My father”  – the novelist and bookseller Larry McMurtry – “ is extremely light-sensitive, he’d get very depressed if he doesn’t get enough sunlight, that’s why he’s in Tucson [Arizona], it’s the only place with enough sun for him.”

“Anything can affect your songwriting. It can happen anywhere, and that’s why having that cell phone helped, because it’s easier to keep track of than bar napkins and things you scribbled things down on.”

When Americana UK puts it to him that among the more unverifiable theories of what helps a composer create, there’s one about being influenced by the phases of the moon, McMurtry doesn’t rule it out completely.  “Like I said, everything affects us, it’s a matter of degree and sensitivity.   Maybe I’m affected by them  but I’m not old enough to have figured it out yet.”

On the subject of  inspiration, he has one final recommendation, “it’s a good idea to capture a line when you first notice it, because a lot of the time you think ‘I’ll remember that and then you don’t  the next day you’re sitting there and you’re thinking ‘man, I had this line, it was great, what happened?’”

“You don’t want to lose stuff, you don’t want to throw anything away, ‘cos it might be useful.’ Arlo Guthrie once said a similar thing, ‘songs are like fish, they swim by you and if you’ve got a pen, you can catch ’em.’”

As for always having something to write it down, “There was the time somebody said  ‘that sounds like a James Taylor song you’ve just written’ and he [Arlo] said ‘well, hell I was sitting right next to James Taylor and I had the pen!”

Then when it comes to songwriting there’s the time factor, about which, again there is little predicting to be made. “Going back to ‘Ain’t Got a Place’, it was one of the few songs, if not the only one that I ever wrote in 15 minutes.  (As he’s said in an interview with Popmatters he had been “exactly the right combination of fed up and drunk” to find a rare kind of inspiration for that song, and “if you get the mixture right, you can write a song but you better write it fast.”)

But then there’s another on ‘Complicated Game’ called  You Got To Me’, “which took 20 years to complete, piecemeal, starting out with a verse, and then getting stuck, putting it on the shelf for a while, coming back. That’s why the song sounds so weirdly  dated because I write on it about subway tokens” – on the verse that whisks the listener back to another era, “I knew this town in another time, I knew this town a younger man, with the world in my hip pocket, and the subway token in my hand” –  “not like a Metro card like we’d do now.”

If two decades sounds like a long time to get a song nailed down, deadlines can help get the music across the line, McMurtry observes, although not as much as they used to.

“Very rarely do you go into a studio and not change something. You’ll hear something through speakers or a song needs to be arranged different so you cut a verse to make it lift better. A lot of times, I’ve written a whole record in the studio, band on the clock sitting around waiting, most of ‘Candyland’ (1992) was done that way. I came in for that album with seven not even complete songs.”

“But I was young I could do that, now I could do one or two songs, not a whole record.” That said, he recognises “on this one, I got everything done before we went in the studio, but I got it in the last month. We  had to book the time before I could really knock it out.”

And when you have the finished product? To go back to Richard Thompson, he’s argued that one of the best ways for test running a new song was by playing it live and if it got a good round of applause, it was a candidate for an album. If it went down like a lead balloon, it’d be binned.  But for McMurtry, recognising whether he’s got an acceptable song in the making is with a rather more limited audience.

“First test is if I can sing it [to myself] without cringing, then it might be a complete work. I can put it out there, but there are songs that I’ve recorded and played live that nobody really wanted to hear. It’s like ‘Racing to the Red Light’”  – off ‘Walk Between The Raindrops’ (1998) – “I didn’t really do a great take on the record but I loved it as a song.”

“ It’s about art in America and how it’s perceived,  that we don’t want our kids to be our artists, we don’t care if they have jobs they hate so long as they can pay the phone bill. I would play that to people and it would just go right by them. Not what they came to hear.”

McMurtry wishes, in retrospect, that he could have somehow pitched that particular song to Prince “because it could have been the perfect rock track for him, he could have put that squiggly synth on it liked he liked to do and used that badass drummer of his. He’d have knocked it over the fence.”

For almost every  McMurtry composition, though, you could do far worse to hear what McMurtry has made of them himself – and no matter the song, it’s worth bearing in mind that while it could have taken just a quarter of an hour to hammer into shape, more likely than not, the formation process will have stretched to a heck of a lot longer. And to this day that song might still have the author baffled, too, as to exactly why he wrote it in the first place. But maybe that elusive, fleeting sense the song has come from somewhere else forms part of its appeal. Part of its magic, even.

Author: Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.

1 thought on “How I Write a Song: James McMurtry”

  1. James is one of my all time favourite songwriters and I feel he gets overlooked in terms of others more popular but no more worthy. Excellent interview – thanks

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