James McMurtry spends hundreds of hours in the van each year, traveling America’s highways to the 100-plus shows he and his band annually perform.
The van hours, however, aren’t just down time. The travel, McMurtry said, provides inspiration for his geographic, detail-filled songs.
Take, for example, the song “South Dakota,” the story of a young military veteran returning to the small town and family farm from “Complicated Game,” his critically acclaimed 2015 album:
“There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/Barbed wire won’t stop the wind/You won’t get nothin’ here but broke and older/If I was you I might re-up again.”
“I drive around a lot,” McMurtry said. “That’s what we do. We travel around in the van, playing my music. That song ‘South Dakota,’ we drive through these little towns and they always have a banner, ‘Welcome Home PFC ...’ You don’t see that in urban areas.
“That’s where it came from and knowing people in the Army. One of my best friends was in for 22 years. He basically went broke and needed a job. He went into the Army.”
The banners triggered the process that created “South Dakota.” Then, McMurtry said, a line or two sets up the rest of the song.
“I get a couple lines and a melody and then I think, ‘Who said that?’, ” McMurtry said. “ I try to create the character who said that, then I go backward to the story, sometimes.”
While he frequently writes songs, McMurtry didn’t make “Complicated Game” until he had to. His trigger for a new album: things slowing down on the road.
“I didn’t make a record for four or five years because we didn’t need to,” McMurtry said. “Then the club cycle, the attendance started falling off, so we made another one. That’s what they’re for now. We make ‘em so guys like you write about them and write about us and people know we’re coming to town.”
Coming to town is now McMurtry’s stock-in-trade. Sales of CDs have dwindled, the payment for artists from digital downloads is far smaller than that for physical products and money from streaming is almost non-existent, he said.
“That’s the way the music business is now,” McMurtry said. “We’re on the road half the year. When we’re home, we do work around here and I have regular gigs in Austin. It’s the only way to make money anymore. The mailbox money isn’t there anymore ... I’ve been working for 25 years. It was a completely different world when I started out.”
In the past dozen years, McMurtry has released just three studio albums, 2005’s “Childish Things,” which won the Americana Music Association’s album of the year award, 2008’s “Just Us Kids” and then, last year’s “Complicated Game.”
Songs from “Complicated Game” make up a good portion of McMurtry’s current set. But he said there are some songs he and the band have to play every night.
“ ‘Choctaw Bingo’ and ‘Levelland’ are fairly mandatory in some places,” he said. “There are some places where they don’t get ‘Levelland,’ like Maine for example. We basically play the same set for a while, then we change it and play that set for awhile.”
Then McMurtry and his three compatriots get back in the van and head down the road, driving as many as eight to 10 hours between towns to play shows. If he’s lucky McMurtry will maybe find inspiration for a song on the way.
McMurty will play a sold-out show on April 1 at Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks in Millheim.