Local songwriter James McMurtry discusses long-time Austin music career

Matt Robertson

Local singer-songwriter James McMurtry couldn’t describe what Austin’s skyline looked like 25 years ago — but he could describe what the city’s music scene was like.

“We’d go out on the road, come back, and the skyline would have changed,” McMurtry said.  

The Americana musician moved to Austin in 1989, following his first record deal. He began playing local venues such as the Saxon Pub and La Zona Rosa, winning album and song of the year at the Americana Music awards in 2006. He will perform Thursday as part of the KGSR Unplugged at the Grove series.

“I’ve been doing Shady Grove since they started up,” McMurtry said. “Austin is so diverse that I can play whatever comes to mind when I’m here.”

Although he will draw material from his past 11 records, McMurtry said the venue will be a good fit for  his latest 2015 release, Complicated Game. The album follows a more acoustic direction — a shift from his usual rock and roll focus.

“It’s just what I do,” McMurtry said. “I write songs and put out records and play shows. I don’t know that my writing has evolved much, but we were doing the bar band thing for so long, I was repeating myself stylistically.”

The album has received critical acclaim from publications such as Rolling Stone, but McMurtry said he cares most about making new music he can share.


“A lot of people are saying it’s a masterpiece and that [the new sound] brings out the songs better,” McMurtry said. “I don’t know if I’m that interested in if it’s acoustic or electric — just whatever puts the songs across is fine with me.”

For McMurtry, live shows have always been the most important part of his career. Since 2002, he has played shows at the Continental Club whenever he was in town and said it has helped his live shows.

“It keeps our chops up,” McMurtry said. “One of the things about a club gig is you don’t get a soundcheck. You just come in, throw your stuff on stage and play, and that kind of toughens you up. It makes the road a little easier.”

McMurtry said he values his time playing on Austin stages but questions the Continental Club’s and other venues’ fates as people move to areas that were once populated with bars and music venues.

“No one seems to mind all the noise coming from the freeway, but people will move into apartment or condo next to an existing club and then bitch,” McMurtry said. “It's not really a good development for the music scene. If you’re gonna come to a music town, you ought to be prepared to put up with a little bit of noise.”

Despite his love of Austin’s culture, McMurtry said spending more than half the year on the road is necessary. With the increasing prevalence of digital content, McMurtry said selling records has become difficult.

“That’s the only place money comes from. We have to tour to make a living,” McMurtry said. “It used to be the other way around. Now, we put out records so you guys will write about us and people will know we’re coming to town and fill up the seats.”

Although McMurtry said relentless touring has made it hard to remember what Austin looked like when he first moved, he always comes back.

“It’s more expensive to live here now,” McMurtry said. “But the food and the wine selection have gotten a lot better.”