Want to Understand Trump's America? Listen to the Songs of James McMurtry
Mary Keating Bruton
Like a lot of people who didn't want Donald Trump as their president, I've been leaning on music to help get me through this past week.
In difficult times, good music can serve a lot of purposes: It can be a form of escape, a way to vent anger, a source of hope, an empathetic friend who understands what you're going through (and can often articulate it better than you could ever hope to). And sometimes, when it's really good, it can help you make sense of what seems incomprehensible.
That's why lately I've been listening to a lot of James McMurtry.
McMurtry, for those not familiar, is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas. For 27 years, over the course of nine studio albums and a couple of live LPs, he's quietly established himself as one of the leading lights of so-called Americana music, that stuff that's too folkie to be called country music and too rockin' to be folk. Stephen King famously once called him "the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation." His fellow Americana artist Jason Isbell has said, "I don't think anybody writes better lyrics."
He sings those lyrics in a twangy, deadpan croon that's like a Lone Star Lou Reed, over music that ranges from bluegrass-tinged waltzes to swampy, choogling folk-rock to guitar-heavy, lighters-up riff fests (he likes to introduce one song, "Lobo Town," by calling it "country music for KISS fans"). Very occasionally, he seems to be singing as himself; more often, he sings as characters, men and women, young and old, rich and poor (but mostly poor). Musically, his forebears are Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, John Prine — with maybe a little Neil Young and Tom Petty in the mix, too, especially in his love of guitars that alternately crunch and chime.
Like all great songwriters, he covers a lot of geographic and emotional terrain, from the streets of Paris to the identity crisis of middle age (actually, come to think of it, he covers those in the same song — he's just that good). But his specialty is funny, heartbreaking, richly detailed character studies of Midwestern rural white Americans — the demographic that, more than any other, made Trump the winner on Nov. 8.
If you're a confused Blue Stater trying to wrap your head around how that demographic could elect a millionaire reality TV star from New York City, you could do worse than to dive into McMurtry's catalog (see below for a playlist). In addition to featuring some of the smartest, most elegant songwriting you'll ever hear, his work sheds a lot of light on the anger, despair and alienation that has plagued Middle America for the past 30-odd years and grown especially acute under our last two presidents.
Now here is where I have to stop and acknowledge that I know some of you aren't ready, at this moment in history, to understand and empathize with anyone from rural white America, even in fictional form. You're still way too pissed off. That's fine. I get it. I've been doing more drinking and getting less sleep at the prospect of a Trump presidency myself. I am also (full disclosure) a straight white guy with family in flyover states, so this is an easier emotional and intellectual leap for me than it is for those who feel, with good reason, that a Trump presidency represents an attack on their very identity.
But I would suggest to you that part of the reason the Democrats not only lost this election, but never even saw the loss coming, is because of this comfortable bubble of diversity and liberalism we've created for ourselves, and if we hope ever to live in a less divided nation, we need to step out of that bubble and at least attempt to have a conversation with the opposing side. And doing that can be scary, and difficult, and humbling. So before you start picking fights you can't win with your Red State relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I recommend giving yourself the dry run of listening to a few McMurtry songs. If you can make it through the redneck family-reunion phantasmagoria that is "Choctaw Bingo," you can make it through the pumpkin pie without calling your cousins from Missouri racist idiots.
To be clear, McMurtry doesn't necessarily identify with or seek to defend the people in his songs — as the city-raised son of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, his is still in many ways an outsider's perspective. Though his songs are usually sympathetic to his subjects, they often veer into satire, as on the brilliant "Choctaw Bingo" or the early romp "Talkin' at the Texaco." But even when he's showing rural white Americans at their most extreme, his insights into their struggles, motives, passions and prejudices make his songs more revealing than the thousand "Who Are These People?" thinkpieces that bewildered mainstream media outlets have been churning out since the election.
The characters in McMurtry's songs are sometimes decent folk, sometimes bastards, often a mix of both. Many speak in a kind of heightened Texan/Great Plains vernacular; they say "yonder" and "set" instead of "sit" and toss off folksy aphorisms like "madder than a wet hen." They're pro-gun, pro-Bible and anti-PC. They're laconic to the point of bluntness and can casually say things us coastal elites find shocking, like "Don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun/I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season's done" (a cantankerous hunter to his wife in "Copper Canteen") and "We're going through Niggertown, honey, lock your doors" (an old white lady to her grandson in "12 O'Clock Whistle").
It would be easy to write off such characters as yokels, or deplorables, or both, but McMurtry never makes it that easy. Only the wealthy and powerful earn his outright scorn (though sometimes even they are spared — "Stancliff's Lament" is a particularly haunting portrait of a man trapped in a successful life not of his own making). Everyone else is just struggling to get by in a world they didn't choose and don't feel like they quite belong in — from the cynical narrator of "Tired of Walking," who turns a violent workplace tragedy into personal gain ("I got the inside story, I'm gonna sell the rights") to the trashiest of white trash "huntin' hogs and cookin' speed" in the backwoods on "Lobo Town."
The world of McMurtry's rural characters is forever tinged with nostalgia for better, bygone days — that "Make America Great Again" sentiment Trump so shrewdly captured. Even the relatively happy ones seem constantly aware that their way of life is not what it used to be. (Though McMurtry himself often challenges that nostalgia, cutting through the sepia tones of "Twelve O'Clock Whistle" with Granny's casual racism and a reminder that back in the "good old days," trucks sprayed the streets with toxic chemicals as mosquito repellent.)
But they also often seem trapped. Cars, planes, trucks and boats appear frequently in McMurtry's songs, but only rarely as a means of escape. More often, they are instruments of destruction (as on "Rachel's Song," when an alcoholic single mother totals her El Camino and sardonically notes, "I probably ought to quit my drinking but I don't believe I will") or taunting symbols of a better life somewhere else, just out of reach (like the jet trails in "Too Long in the Wasteland" that beckon the reclusive narrator but also remind him that his last chance to pick up stakes has long since past).
Over the course of McMurtry's career, which began under George H.W. Bush, the plights of the people in his songs have grown more desperate. The central conflicts of his early albums — alcoholism, broken families, rural ennui, changing social mores — have been replaced by more urgent crises: crystal meth, domestic violence, grinding poverty, and a rising sense of hopelessness that only began creeping into his songs post-9/11. In a rare burst of overtly political fury, McMurtry crystallized many of these issues into his most searing song, 2005's "We Can't Make It Here."
The key lyric in "We Can't Make It Here" comes towards the end, when the song's narrator, reduced to "stocking shirts in the Walmart store," looks for someone to blame for the fact that his future's been taken away:
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 sent the jobs away
The tragedy of Trump's election is that, for too many of his supporters, those questions aren't rhetorical. They do hate the foreigners whom they perceive as having taken their jobs, both here and abroad. They hate "the men [that] sent the jobs away," too, which is why Trump's promise to punish businesses that ship jobs overseas has carried so much weight.
I actually asked James McMurtry himself about all of this, and he was kind enough to share a few thoughts via email from the road (he's currently touring the West Coast with Anders Osborne). Here, in part, is what he had to say:
I drove through at least forty-six states this year. I saw very few Clinton yard signs in my travels. I saw quite a few Trump signs and stickers. ... While I am dismayed and disgusted by the outcome of the recent election, I can’t say I’m all that surprised.
Obama was hated in rural America like no president I can remember. Obamacare was vilified as “socialized medicine,” an evil idea to rural Texans since I can remember. My late rancher grandfather railed against socialized medicine, but took his Medicare like everybody else. Obama’s coattails did not help Hillary out in the country.
If Hillary did anything to actually deserve to lose the election, it was the “deplorables” remark. Did she not see the hypocrisy in that statement? Democrats are supposed to be about inclusion. Whatever we may think of them, those “deplorables” are our fellow Americans.
It's too easy, I think, to say Trump won this election because of the Electoral College, or racism, or misogyny. Those all played a part, but so did this: Democrats failed to understand what they were up against. They — and much of the media that covered the election — dismissed Trump as a blowhard, his supporters as racists and rednecks. In the coinage of another Republican president, they "misunderestimated" him and the depth of the frustration among a very large class of Americans who feel they've been diminished and ignored by both major parties and by an entertainment and media complex that mostly emanates from New York and Los Angeles.
For their sake, I hope Trump isn't a blowhard. I truly hope he helps the people who elected him (and the rest of us, for that matter) and doesn't turn out to be a sheep in wolf's clothing, an empty figurehead who will hand the keys back to the usual Republican muckety-mucks and give us more of the same. [Clarification: I speak here only of some of his proposed economic policies. When it comes to his campaign promises to ban Muslims, deport Mexicans and appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices, I hope he was just being a blowhard.]
But for all our sakes, I also hope my fellow liberals learned a valuable lesson from all this, and come 2020, they don't make the same mistakes. I hope they get outside the bubble. Listening to James McMurtry may not fully accomplish that daunting task, but it's a good way to start.
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