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James McMurtry Revels In The Complexity of 'Common People'


Country-folk rocker James McMurtry  attributes his penchant for writing about many different kinds of rural characters to growing up in rural northern Virginia, and to relatives in rural Texas.  And he said he often writes about the dark side of those characters because he gets tired of what he called "the glossing over of real life."

"I get sick of hearing 'what have they done with old home place' over and over again.  Cause I know what they did with the old home place" said McMurtry.  "Grandpa got senile, your evil Aunt Francis got power of attorney and sold it out from under everybody.  That's what happens in the real country."

McMurtry has a way of inhabiting the characters in his songs.  He writes often of people who realize their life partner isn't perfect, or even the right person for them, but they're sticking with that person because that's the person they've chosen to be with.

"I write from the point of view of the character" said McMurtry.  "When I get a couple lines and a melody, I think 'who said that?'  I try to envision the character and then I write the song from that characters point of view.  A lot of times the story will change for the sake of rhyme and meter.  Because the song has to be a song.   You can write the best story you want, but if it doesn't 'sing' it's not a song."

McMurtry moved with his father from Texas to Virginia at age seven.  He said because he felt like an outsider in his new home, it made it easier for him to be an observer of new people and places.  He said it was easier for him to see things natives took for granted.

"Perceptions of distance" was one item McMurtry mentioned.  He said "We lived about 50 miles outside of D.C. at a time when nobody commuted that far into D.C.  There wasn't an infrastructure, there were no trains, the highway was two lane.  But being from rural Texas my father didn't think anything of that.  He was used to driving 100 miles and not thinking anything about it."

In 2004, McMurtry released "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," a song that received a lot of pushback for it's scathing critique of the widening gap between the have's and have not's that has reared it's head politically in 2016 Presidential race. 

"Yeah I caught some flack for that song, but it also turned a corner for me" recalled McMurtry.  "I got into a lot bigger venues after that song came out because a lot of people identified with it."

When it was pointed out that it was also a very angry song, McMurtry shot back "there's  a lot of angry people out there.  Just go to a Trump rally.  It's been scary for years.  But I don't know why this anger is surprising anyone.  Tim McVey blew off the side of a building in Oklahoma City long before 9/11."

Some of the anger though confuses McMurtry.

"I think it's perception more than anything.  We have a lot of people who think they're broke.  But they're driving around in cars with plenty of food and nobody is shooting at them.  There's whole difference perceptions of poverty in other places."

McMurtry returns to Bloomington-Normal to play Six Strings in downtown Bloomington November 30.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.