James McMurtry doesn't necessarily think of himself as a political songwriter, but he's gotten pretty used to other people thinking that. Especially in the aftermath of "We Can't Make It Here," an unforgiving state-of-the-union indictment that the acerbic singer-songwriter distributed as a free download during the 2004 presidential campaign.
While McMurtry hasn't released a studio album since 2008's excellent Just Us Kids, the Texas native has kept busy. He tours extensively, plays weekly Wednesday night gigs at the Continental Club whenever he's back home in Austin, and re-recorded "We Can't Make It Here," with Steve Earle and Joan Baez contributing vocals, as his standout contribution to last year's four-disc Occupy This Album collection.
"That was the brainchild of my ex-manager Mark Spector, who also manages Joan Baez," says McMurtry of the remake.
"He quit my business a long time ago, because back then 20 percent of nothing was nothing. He threw up his hands and ran screaming back to Connecticut. But he still manages Joan, and she is buddies with Steve, so that's how that happened."
It's easy to see why such socially conscious artists would be attracted to a song with lines like:
"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."
Other McMurtry tracks like "Cheney's Toy" contain some of the most caustic political commentary since Phil Ochs' heyday. But like Warren Zevon and Randy Newman before him, he offers an equal-opportunity iconoclasm on signature songs like "Choctaw Bingo": We're gonna strap them kids in / Give 'em a little bit o' Benadryl and a Cherry Coke.
Just how dark can McMurtry's sense of humor get? Consider a couple of Just Us Kids song titles: "You'd a' Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)" is a sly reference to Cohen's "A Singer Must Die," while "God Bless America (Pat Macdonald Must Die)" targets the former Timbuk3 singer who ended up playing harp on the track.
"Actually, there were a couple of 'Must Dies' that I recorded that didn't get on the record. And one of them [Stephen Bruton] did die," recalls McMurtry. "'Leonard Cohen Must Die' happened because the lyrics kind of reminded me of Cohen's stuff. I was writing it while the band was in the studio waiting for me to show up with the lyrics. So I came in and said, 'Well, if it wasn't for Leonard Cohen, you wouldn't have been waiting all day. Leonard Cohen must die.' And then that became kind of the buzzword joke for the whole session."
Like father, like son
For McMurtry — who'll be playing a solo show at the Loft on Sunday — being typecast as a political songwriter does have its upside. He spends less time these days answering questions about his father, author Larry McMurtry, whose storytelling mastery is also evident in his own work. The musician's John Mellencamp-produced debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, came out in 1989, the same year his father's Lonesome Dove was adapted into a TV mini-series that made him a household name.
While the musician's deep voice and deeper lyrics are unmistakable, his earliest work suggests a number of influences, including Lou Reed.
"Yeah, sure, I was a Lou Reed fan," says McMurtry, "and a lot of people thought my voice and production were like that. It's actually kind of scary, because my favorite record of his is New York, which came much later than the stuff that a lot of people liked. I heard one of those songs in the outro of a movie right as I was finishing up making Too Long in the Wasteland, and I remember coming out of there thinking, this is scary. Because the production sounded so much like that. I remember when Mellencamp got the New York album; he said, 'Yeah, it sounds like it was produced by an eighth-grader, but I like it.'"
McMurtry is currently working on a new album with C.C. Adcock at the production helm. Given the Grammy-nominated producer's Louisiana heritage, it'll likely be more swampy-sounding than its predecessor. McMurtry says the album will feature his touring band "and whoever else C.C. drags into it. He works in New Orleans, so he can find horn players and accordion players and people we don't know."
Adcock also recently produced a re-recorded "Choctaw Bingo" as a promotion for Lagunitas Brewing Co., which sponsors a lot of his tours. "I put an extra verse in it that I just wrote for that project."
A verse about beer?
"No, the verse is about an aunt with a painkiller addiction," says McMurtry with a rare laugh, "which I failed to cover in the original."
Born in the NRA
No interview with McMurtry would be complete without some discussion of current affairs, especially at a point where gun control has once again become the focal point of national debate.
"I was riding around with a cousin of mine this past weekend, and he asked if I was gonna write about Obama. I said, 'Well, you know, "We Can't Make It Here" works pretty well with Obama, just as it did with Bush.' And he said, 'At least Bush didn't come after our guns.' I said, 'Obama's not either. And you don't have to worry about whether Obama wants our guns or not. The problem for you is: How many millions of your fellow American voters want somebody to come get your guns?'"
Of course, that distinction isn't all that reassuring for the National Rifle Association's "pry it from my cold, dead fingers" crowd. I ask McMurtry if he really thinks there are that many people set on confiscating guns, versus, say, closing loopholes.
"There may be, I don't know. I haven't met very many. But there are a lot of people that believe somebody wants to come and take their guns. And if you have a conversation about any kind of limits on magazine capacity or whatever else, then you're a traitor to the cause and get excommunicated from the church, basically. Because it is a church. It's a cult."
That said, McMurtry's own views have shifted in the wake of Newtown. While still skeptical of the selective ban on semi-automatic weapons found in the Clinton Crime Bill (which expired in 2004), he now agrees with the provision that restricted magazine capacity to 10 rounds.
The reason, he says, is that deputy sheriffs and patrolmen are no longer being instructed to hold off until more highly trained SWAT teams arrive on the scene to confront the assailant. "If a shooter has to change mags, they'll have a second-and-a-half or two with no return fire. And that might help, you know?"
It was in the aftermath of an earlier school shooting that McMurtry got fed up with the NRA.
"I was an NRA member until I saw that footage of Charlton Heston waving that damn Pennsylvania rifle over his head in Columbine two weeks after the shooting. That's just subhuman behavior. That was a community that needed to mourn their children. They needed to be left alone. And they went in there and did that. You know, a dog knows better than to do that.
"It's made out now that Democrats have a monopoly on gun legislation, which is not the case," McMurtry points out. "I mean, Reagan signed the Brady Bill into law. But of course, Reagan got shot. That can change your attitude, you know?"