James McMurtry has a decidedly unromantic view of the music industry these days.
“We’re basically service industry workers. We’re tied to the bar business. A lot of musicians don’t get that,” McMurtry says during a conversation about his upcoming show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville.
After 25 years and seven studio albums, McMurtry would know. He’s seen the music industry’s business model change dramatically over that time. When he started, musicians toured in support of record/CD sales. “Then Napster came along,” he notes, and the model changed to having people pay online for downloadable tunes.
Today, with the rise of streaming music applications, musicians must tour relentlessly as they cobble together money from ticket sales, perhaps a cut of bar sales, merchandise sales and something from CD sales or streaming plays.
It’s a tough row to hoe, but the songwriter – one of the most searingly distinctive voices on the scene – forges ahead. His Complicated Game release of 2015 was heralded as yet another masterpiece. It finds McMurtry in fine form, sounding more traditionally acoustic, as he plumbs the depths of relationships in hard-wrought characters.
So where does McMurtry find those characters, and those telling details that stick with you long after one of his shows?
“Mostly I get a line and a melody, and then think about who said that. From there, I get a character, and from a character I get a story,” he says. “I work backwards.”
Those characters can work well when they give voice to current events, something McMurtry discovered with his hit We Can’t Make It Here. As Election 2016 barrels ahead, is McMurtry finding inspiration in the current state of politics?
McMurtry seems to bristle at the suggestion, noting that he’s written “very few political songs.”
“A lot of times my characters don’t agree with me and that can be dangerous,” he adds. “My job is the to write the best song I can and give it its own voice.”
James McMurtry plays the Grey Eagle on Friday, July 22. The show starts at 8 p.m.