Songwriter James McMurtry to visit Baton Rouge | Entertainment/Life

James McMurtry doesn’t appear to have trouble crafting a memorable line. Take this gem, written for Rolling Stone magazine earlier in the year: “Every man should wear a dress once or twice, just to learn a thing or two.”

A bit of context. The 61-year-old Texan singer-songwriter, widely recognized as one of America’s finest tunesmiths, has made a career out of writing poetic, literate songs that occasionally touch a political nerve. He’s not afraid to tackle issues he feels are important — recently, in order to protest newly-minted anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ legislation, he’s occasionally taken to wearing dresses onstage. Bright red ones, naturally.

James McMurtry

Texas-based singer-songwriter James McMurtry is coming to Baton Rouge for a Tuesday show at Chelsea’s Live.

“I try to alert people in any state I go to that’s got such a moronic law,” he says. “I try to draw attention to it. That (legislation is) the first step, the first major step, towards fascism: they start singling out groups, small groups that everybody else denigrates, and they figure not many people are going to stand up for them. It’s very easy to put on a dress. Doesn’t hurt anybody.”

McMurtry will perform at Chelsea’s Live on Tuesday night.

It’s not the first time McMurtry has taken on a political cause over the course of his 10-album, near 35-year-long career. Still, he doesn’t claim to be an overtly political songwriter. He regularly (and happily) plays to audiences of mixed political persuasions, and notes that he’s written songs that resonate with people on both sides of the political divide. 

“I was not that political a songwriter until (2004’s) ‘We Can’t Make it Here,'” he says. “I got known for kind of left-leaning political songs, but it’s not been the major thrust of my music. I just write songs. A couple of them happen to be political and that happened to get noticed, and that’s OK.”

“You’ve gotta get noticed for something,” he adds, dryly.

McMurtry’s songs have strong roots in country music, and encompass a broad emotional and physical landscape with stories of love, struggle and the unvarnished side of the human experience. They’re very much in the tradition of classic country songwriting — a tradition that, in this day and age, is something of an anachronism in contemporary popular country music. Nashville’s current fixation on little other than good times and small town mythologizing is not only dishonest, McMurtry says, but a broader artistic loss as well.

“Hank (Williams) Jr. had a big hit with ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ back in the ’80s, and it was all the same things about, you know, how the small towns in rural America are somehow morally superior to the city,” he says.

“As if they weren’t rife with drug use, rape, incest, everything else that the whole world has. I think it’s a shame because you can make better art out of that, that kind of real tragedy. Why aren’t country artists writing about fentanyl, mentioning meth in song?”

He answers his own question: because that’s not what sells. The numbers bear it out, with recent big hits like Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” and Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” offering up images of hard-working, under-siege small town USA.

“The myth sells better than the reality,” McMurtry says. “They don’t like you breaking the myth. They didn’t used to mind. … Tom T. Hall wrote ‘Harper Valley PTA’, taking up for the single mother giving ’em hell. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, you had songs like (Henson Cargill’s) ‘Skip a Rope.’ You couldn’t get that on the radio now any more than you can fly.”

McMurtry’s father was, of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry. The younger McMurtry says his father didn’t give him any direct advice about crafting a tune — “his influence on my songwriting was his record collection,” he notes — but may have provided a deeper groundwork

“He never gave me any tips about (songwriting) and he never wrote verse either — he said it was a completely different muscle and he didn’t use that muscle,” he said. “But I guess I might have picked up some of his storytelling, his eye for detail.”

There is another similarity. Back in the mid-1960s, when his father moved away from Texas, Larry would regale people with stories about his home state. “(Texas) was a different universe back then,” McMurtry says. “It’s all kind of grown together now, homogenized, but (Larry) knew cowboys and that kind of thing, and people wanted to hear about it.”

He laughs.

“They say Buffalo Bill sold the West to the East, and I continue that tradition.”

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