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James McMurtry comes alive

By Rick Teverbaugh, March 2004

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But he isn't bashful about his very modest goals of what the disc might accomplish. "I simply hope the album dispels any rumors that we suck," he says.

McMurtry believes he knows why songwriters have that reputation. The reason isn't the first guess, which would be because many times in mainstream country the songwriter and the singer are two different people.

"People listening to mainstream country really don't know who wrote the songs and really don't much care. They probably assume the one singing the song wrote it."

That has happened to McMurtry before after Robert Earl Keen recorded McMurtry's "Levelland" on his "Picnic" album. People continue to ask McMurtry to play that Robert Earl Keen song.

But the reason he thinks singer/songwriters have gotten a bad reputation is more simple and to the point. "A lot of singer/songwriters do suck," he said. "In some circles, the songwriter just can't play."

Whether capturing a live show in the studio or going there to record new music, the approach to making a disc hasn't changed much from his first attempts at Columbia until now.

"I don't think I've changed the process any," he says. "It's still recorded live in the studio. If we don't get it in three or four takes, there's probably something wrong anyway. Sometimes we get our best energy after the drummer has gotten pissed off and just goes off on it."

When McMurtry does venture out on the road, he's finding his audience changing a bit.

"Our crowd used to be all guys who were prematurely bald," says McMurtry. "I refer to them as Johnnys. They could relate to my music. Now the crowd seems to be getting younger. It's like Johnnys' kids are showing up. We're now playing in a lot of theatres and rock clubs because they have better equipment."

Should anyone go to McMurtry's show, he has some advice. "Don't sit down front in the middle where it sounds like shit," he says. "We try to keep that area open for dancers. If just one dancer comes down there, it improves the kinetic energy. But if you want to hear the words, sit off to the side where the vocals come out."

McMurtry didn't play often in Austin for some time even though it was his residence. It had nothing to do with not enjoying that climate, but rather a geographical condition surrounding his band.

"My bass player was in New York, and my drummer was in Los Angeles. I couldn't afford to bring them in for live shows."

Now his band, delicately titled The Heartless Bastards on the new album, is local, and McMurtry plays most every Wednesday in Austin's Continental Club.

McMurtry has, having tried bartending, acting and housepainting as vocations before deciding on music. In his on-stage banter on the new album, he confesses that he enjoys his life as a "beer salesman."

The Internet has also been a help to McMurtry in spreading the word and the music to places without access to his tours or his music. Although his own website isn't among the more informative or interactive on the site, he does appreciate that fans can connect to him indirectly through home computers.

"I think it probably has helped to get the word out," says McMurtry. "I'll have people ask me about where I'm going to be playing and I tell them to check Pollstar. I don't put it on my site because people can get my schedule and a whole lot more on their site."

Another electronic connection is the Yahoo group devoted to him and his music. The group is just over 3 years old and boasts more than 200 members. In January of 2004 the group was at its peak, logging over 200 messages in that month alone.

"I guess it means I must be doing my job right," said McMurtry. "I don't know who they expect me to be when they pick up a disc or see a show, but hopefully these things will help them come to know me."

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