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James McMurtry: We Can't Make It Here (Anymore)

Updated: May 5, 2020

Neil Morton

It is doubtful Donald Trump has a playlist, and even if he has the name James McMurtry is unlikely to feature. The Texan troubadour recorded a song towards the end of the US president’s first year in office in 2017 titled State Of The Union, a return to a satirical address he had delivered under a previous commander-in-chief 13 years earlier.

In 2004 the White House released a list of the songs President George W Bush was playing on his iPod, no doubt to help him appear a down-to-earth guy before he was elected for a second term. McMurtry’s Valley Road was included but Mr Bush could not have been a devotee of the Austin-based songwriter – otherwise he would have known the singer specialises in songs about the strugglers on the margins, victims of the whims of big business and uncaring politicians, the people the American dream left behind.

Bush would have deleted We Can’t Make It Here (Anymore), as close to a protest song his fellow Texan had so far created, the message angry and direct with no trace of his usual favoured ambiguity. The subject matter of McMurtry’s snarling indictment of the Bush administration was the Iraq war, corporate profiteers, abuse of power and the impact of outsourcing manufacturing jobs on the working man.

Some have maxed out all their credit cards Some are working two jobs and living in cars Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr CEO See how far $5.15 an hour will go Take a part-time job at one your stores I bet you can’t make it here anymore

The narrator knows where the blame lies…

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today No I hate the men that sent the jobs away

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams All lily white and squeaky clean They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed Their kids won’t bleed in the damn little war And we can’t make it here anymore

McMurtry supported an anti-Iraq war concert organised by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen young soldier, on a stage set up outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford. The president possibly heard the song then, delivered in a Dylanesque, sardonic speak-sing drawl well above safe decibel levels…

Now I’m stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store Just like the ones we made before ’Cept this one came from Singapore I guess we can’t make it here anymore

So that's how it is, that's what we got If the president wants to admit it or not You can read it in the paper, read it on the wall Hear it on the wind if you’re listening at all Get out of that limo, look us in the eye Call us on the cell phone, tell us all why

A Democrat in deepest red Texas, McMurtry had kept a low political profile but his stance changed with the 2000 election. As a hunter and man about country, he had been a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association until a poll many regarded as having been won by voter intimidation and fraud. ‘It became clear to me after a while that my money wasn’t going to supporting my gun rights, but instead towards scaring gun owners into voting Republican,’ he told the Austin Chronicle.

Listening to Steve Earle’s 2004 album The Revolution Starts Now further empowered him. McMurtry offered his song, which would appear on the Americana award-winning album Childish Things the following year, as a free download on his website and invited fans to compile their own videos to accompany it. Cue a YouTube phenomenon.

Will work for food, will die for oil Will kill for power and to us the spoils The billionaires get to pay less tax The working poor get to fall through the cracks So let ’em eat jellybeans, let ’em eat cake Let ’em eat shit, whatever it takes They can join the Air Force or join the Corps If they can’t make it here anymore

McMurtry is scathing in his vision of modern America but instead of just pointing the finger, he creates flawed characters whom he inhabits to paint a picture the tourist industry would disown. In his more recent foray into political territory, State Of The Union, the narrator is dismissed by his brother as a snow-flake liberal who always knows better at a birthday celebration for their 80-year-old mother which is soured by bickering…

My brother’s a fascist, lives in Palacios

Fishes the pier every night

He holsters his Glock in a double retention

He smokes while he waits for a bite

He don’t like the Muslims, he don’t like the Jews

He don’t like the Blacks and he don’t trust the news

He hates the Hispanics and alternative views

He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white

Meanwhile, the father ‘always treated his Mexicans good’ while the sister thumped a bible with a 9mm in her purse. ‘We’re all in the family, the cursed and the blessed’ and the state of the union is ‘iffy at best’. McMurtry’s rancorous reunions are painfully entertaining, a device to mirror the divisions of the country at large.

‘This song, like most of my songs, is a work of fiction,’ he says on his website. ‘Any resemblance of any of my characters to actual persons, living or deceased, is just plain lucky.’ The sociopolitical commentary was finished with Trump in power but was born on Barack Obama’s watch, just as We Can’t Make It Here began its life under Bill Clinton. Communities can be neglected by any government, whatever the affiliation.

The author Stephen King, who owns a rock radio station in Maine, wrote that McMurtry ‘may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation’. His 2002 masterpiece Choctaw Bingo, about the crystal-meth epidemic, became that station’s most requested song ('Now we're gonna play all the hit,' McMurtry quipped on tour in Europe). We Can’t Make It Here, declared King, was the most memorable protest song since Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War.

Jason Isbell, with whom McMurtry and his Heartless Bastards band have toured, says: ‘He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.’ Which explains why he covered Rachel's Song. According to the Washington Post, the Fort Worth-born, Virginia-raised McMurtry ‘creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets’.

I suppose being the son of a novelist and screenplay writer may have contributed to the gift of gritty storytelling and withering wordplay. Pulitzer Prize-winning Larry McMurtry, whose cv includes Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Terms Of Endearment, Brokeback Mountain and Falling From Grace, passed on a cinematic eye for detail and characterisation. Dad admires his son’s lyric writing for its economy, an art he admits he would struggle to emulate.

Choctaw Bingo and We Can’t Make It Here are probably McMurtry’s most powerful songs though there are other contenders in this observer’s view: Levelland from Where’d You Hide The Body; Out Here In The Middle (‘Now we even got Starbucks, what else you need?’) from Saint Mary Of The Woods; Cheney’s Toy (‘You’re no longer daddy’s boy’ – another Bush bashing) from Just Us Kids; Memorial Day, Holiday and the towering title track from Childish Things; the colossal Copper Canteen (‘We grew up hard, and our children don’t know what that means/ We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens'), These Things I’ve Come To Know and South Dakota from Complicated Game. On the latter, his 12th and most recent album, he eschewed political rants on his producer’s advice, returning to colourful vignettes of small-town American life.

When a history of the storyteller in song is written, James McMurtry merits a place among my gallery of favourites: Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Randy Newman, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, John Prine, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Gillian Welch, Gretchen Peters, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley, Loudon Wainwright III, Ray Davies. The chronicler's acerbic wit can sometimes make him as dark as Tom Waits.

The 56-year-old singer-guitarist writes with an outsider's perspective about ‘what I see through the windshield’ – and thank goodness for his mobile. He told The Boot: ‘I have scraps of lyrics on several hard drives and a couple of phones, so I just look at what songs are closest to finished and then think of those as the potential next record. The cell phone has saved my writing because I don’t have to write songs down on bar napkins and lose them anymore.’

He generally prefers people and relationships to politics, his satire set in a dysfunctional, domestic milieu. ‘You get in trouble if you put out something that’s just a sermon,’ he told the Houston Chronicle. ‘No matter how good a sermon it is, it’s going to drag you down as an artist.’ So he speaks to us through his characters: ‘It’s always how I start songs. If I had to write everything from my own personal voice I wouldn’t be writing much.’

But Trump’s head-scratching rise to power, on the back of liberal lethargy, reawakened the activist in McMurtry. This time the songwriter’s political address would be called State Of The Union, a single which it is hoped will appear on his next album. The Real Donald, self-styled champion of the working man, won’t waste his tweets on fake muse. Maybe he has a playlist after all, with Pink Floyd’s The Wall on repeat. You can’t make it up anymore.


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