A Conversation with James McMurtry
Mike Ragogna: James, Complicated Game is your first album in six years. How complicated was its creation?
James McMurtry: The writing process was no more complicated than usual. I start with two lines and a melody and try to build from there. If the song keeps me up at night, I finish it. If not, it goes on the scrap pile to possibly be fished out and finished at a later date.
The recording process was a bit different this time. CC Adcock and Mike Napolitano produced the record in New Orleans. Most of us in my racket have to tour more than we used to because the mailbox money’s not there anymore. We can’t afford to hunker down in the studio for six weeks. So I’d come in for a week, sometimes with my band, sometimes solo, lay down a few tracs and then head back out on the road. While I was gone, CC and Mike would figure out whom else they wanted on the record, or whom else they could get. Often, decisions were based on who happened to be in town. You never know who might turn up in New Orleans.
MR: Your songs’ topics cover a wide range yet they’re all able to fit into the “Americana” genre. Does making this breed of music afford you more freedom to investigate and express than the other genres? Considering everything evolves or at least changes a little, what do you think of the “Americana” these days and do you have any favorite contemporaries? And didn’t you receive a Grammy nomination?
JM: My Grammy nomination was for Long Form Video in 1994, just before Americana came to be thought of as a genre. I don’t know if there was a chart for Americana Radio at that time. Seems like AAA–Adult Alternative Airplay or Triple A–had just morphed into almost what AOR–Album Oriented Rock–had been, and Americana had not yet grown up into the slightly more country version of Triple A that it eventually became. don’t know if Americana qualifies as a genre, or if it’s a catchall category for those of us who play a mix of country and rock ‘n’ roll and can’t get much play anywhere else. I’m not complaining. I need the spins and I’m not sure what really constitutes a genre anyway. Americana Radio has a bright future if they keep spinning the likes of John Fulbright and Jason Isbell. Those guys are top notch.
MR: How personal does the subject matter get for you, for instance, how much of you is there in songs like “Copper Canteen” and “Deaver’s Crossing” maybe as opposed to “Long Island Shores” and “How’m I Gonna Find You Now”?
JM: My songs are fiction whether I’m in them or not. I did used to cross a farm owned by some people named Deaver when I was a kid, but I fictionalized the account. I never knew the real Mr. Deaver. He’s crippled up in the song because it fits the meter and makes a good story. I did meet the real Mrs. Deaver. She was delightful. The other three songs you mention are totally made up, unless you count the rattle in the dashboard in “How’m I . . .” I did have an actual…