Those who turn the dial on the FM radio all the way over to the right to KPIG at 107.5, have surely heard James McMurtry singing with his Texan’s drawl. KPIG’s program director, Laura Ellen Hopper, says that McMurtry is one of the Watsonville station’s “core artists.” Currently, two of his songs, “Choctaw Bingo” and “Lights of Cheyenne,” are in heavy rotation.
Hopper believes that there is probably one thing that really makes McMurtry (who is, incidentally, the son of novelist/screenwriter Larry McMurtry) appealing to her station’s listeners. “He writes those great lyrics,” she says. “His lyrics are very compelling.”
A listen to his latest album, a live one called Live In Aught-Three, reveals that McMurtry is a singer/songwriter who can write about the middle of America with an almost Dylanesque quality. One of his best songs, “Levelland,” is an unflinching look at life on the plains that begins by wondering why westbound settlers stopped (“wagon must have lost a wheel/ or they lacked ambition”). Then, over McMurtry’s trademark sound, a stripped down version of rock ‘n’ roll that serves as a fine vehicle for his literary lyrics, he sings of a character in the song, “I don’t think she has seen the sky/ Since we got the satellite dish.”
And then there’s the rollicking almost nine-minute long “Choctaw Bingo,” where McMurtry unleashes a barrage about a twisted family reunion at an uncle’s house. (The song, which mentions crystal meth, guns and a hard-on, has been pulled by some radio stations.)
McMurtry, talking with me last week on the phone while he got some keys made in his hometown of Austin, Texas, says that in “Choctaw Bingo” he wanted to write what other songwriters wouldn’t dare describe.
“That’s the whole point of the song: To say what people wouldn’t say.”
At first, McMurtry asserts that songs like “Choctaw Bingo” are not based on any personal experiences. “They are virtually all fiction,” he says. But, then a few seconds later, he admits that the song was influenced by a drive on Highway 69 in Oklahoma.
Though McMurtry started playing guitar at the ripe age of seven, he didn’t start gigging until his college years at University of Arizona in Tucson.
“I tried to play pretty obscure covers, but I had to do a couple of Jimmy Buffet songs so the food-and-beverage guys would hire me,” he recalls.
After a bartending gig in San Antonio, McMurtry got his break when his father wrote a screenplay for John Mellencamp and the rocker from Indiana heard a demo tape from the upcoming singer/songwriter. By 1989, McMurtry had recorded his debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, with Mellencamp as co-producer.
For McMurtry, it was a very intimidating experience.
“It was pretty scary,” he says. “It’s like coming out of high school and working for Vince Lombardi.”
In addition to writing a new album after touring, McMurtry is penning his first book review on Jacob Slichter’s So You Want to Be a Rock N’ Roll Star, an autobiographical account of the band Semisonic, for none other than The New York Times. McMurtry, who says he does not write short stories or poems, was shocked when someone at the Times approached him to write the review: “I asked them ‘are you sure, ‘cause I am not really the prose writer in the family.’”
James McMurtry plays Hidden Valley Theater, Carmel Valley Rd. and Ford Rd., Carmel Valley, Friday at 7pm. $30/advance, $35/at the door. 625-1229.