James McMurtry never wrote political songs because he didn't like listening to them much.
His exception was the music of fellow Texas native Steve Earle. When Earle released "The Revolution Starts Now" in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign, it inspired McMurtry to pick up his pen.
The result was "We Can't Make it Here," a sneering, searing indictment of the Bush administration released online just before George W. Bush won a second term. He invited fans to make their own videos, making it a YouTube hit viewed more than 150,000 times and the best-known song of a 20-year musical career.
A Democrat in Texas, McMurtry felt like his vote didn't matter. "The one power that I did have was the record deal," he said. "I went for it and it turned out to be a song, not a sermon. It turned out to be a song with a narrator that a lot of people could relate to."
The momentum from "We Can't Make it Here" carried over to the new disc, "Just Us Kids," which topped the Americana chart for more than a month this spring. He gets in another shot at Bush ("Cheney's Toy"), but the disc's strength lies in McMurtry's ability to draw detailed portraits in song, mostly of flawed figures too often overlooked by society.
There's the dot-com millionaire trying to cover up the emptiness inside, the lonely man isolated when a hurricane blows down his telephone lines, the crank addict living "in a cinder block cell."
The narrator of "Bayou Tortous" looks out at the world through "the hole in the bottom of my heart."
They are themes that run throughout his career. "Where's Johnny," released in 1992, is a devastating portrait of a former high school hero who returns home with no ambition or drive. It baffles his parents, who must come to terms with the fact it's "just life."
Life's ‘a damn short movie’
The rollicking title cut to "Just Us Kids" tracks a gang of teenagers who keep hanging out as they age. "We could really have it all," he sings. "Our kid's gonna graduate next fall. I could take retirement in 10 years. It's a damn short movie. How'd we ever get here?"
He has a novelist's eye for detail, fitting them into the compact literary form of a song, and a dry vocal tone.
If bloodlines matter, the writing ability comes naturally: he's the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove"). James' experiences growing up, listening to the likes of Johnny Cash, influenced the kind of writer he'd become.
What sealed the deal for him was sitting in the ninth row of a Kris Kristofferson concert one night.
"I got to see up close how much fun the people seemed to be having," he said, "and that's what drew me to it more than anything."
McMurtry's first album was produced by John Mellencamp, the sort of adoption by a star guaranteed to draw attention, and had the major-label backing of Columbia. Dropped after two albums, he's made the rounds of smaller labels. His current Lightning Rod Records is simply an imprint by a former A&R man who stuck with him. He's been left to pretty much develop and practice his craft on his own, picking up a devoted fan base.
He downplays his guitar playing, but through years of playing guitar as part of a three-piece band, he's become a good one. That was most evident on a 2003 live album that McMurtry's quite proud of, but felt it was unjustly dismissed because many people consider live discs throwaways.
"His songwriting has always been great," said Logan Rogers, who started Lightning Rod Records to release McMurtry's new album. "The lyrics have always been great. Now the musical side has caught up."