Photo: Jason DeCrow, STR
In an alternate reality with less fake news, James McMurtry might have been a pundit – imagine the musician and son of a Pulizter winner with a Washington Post column or talking-head gig on CNN. But within the realm of Americana music, and pop in general, he’s one of those rare singer-songwriters whose words frequently draw blood.
The Austin-based McMurtry put out his latest single, “State of the Union,” as a free download on Jan. 2. Just his moderately strummed acoustic guitar and a dollop of Warren Hood’s fiddle, the arrangement doesn’t need much dressing up. Not with lines like these:
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
When: 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Continental Club, 3700 Main
Details: $20; continentalclub.com/houston
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 alternate views
He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white
“If we could teach our kids proper Spanish pronunciation, that song would have never happened,” McMurtry says during a phone call. “But in the Texan pronunciation, (‘Palacios’) happens to rhyme with ‘fascist.’ “
Obviously, a lot more is going on here than McMurtry’s keen rhyming. As it builds toward a memorable confrontation at a Golden Corral restaurant, “State of the Union” checks in with the narrator’s sister – who totes a 9 mm to Bible study – and their 80-year-old mother, who prefers the yeast rolls and Bourbon Street chicken and to stay out of her kids’ bickering.
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“Christmas dinner might be hell to pay,” McMurtry sings.
These days, pop music’s upper echelons remain dominated by empowerment-preaching queen bees and anxiety-plagued party boys who share little outside one common trait: taking themselves very seriously indeed. In such a hothouse climate, satire can be tough to spot.
But it’s there. In the music of rap god Kendrick Lamar and the literate lyrics of St. Vincent, among others.
But, still, few bite like the lyrics of McMurtry, who will play the Continental Club on Friday.
His “State of the Union” should strike a chord with McMurtry’s fans. The characters are cut from the same demographic cloth as the ne’er-do-wells at the family reunion to end all reunions in his song “Choctaw Bingo,” or the old married couple in “Copper Canteen,” which The New York Times Magazine named one of “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” last March. Of its opening line, “Honey don’t you be yelling at me while I’m cleaning my gun,” writer Ruth Graham said, “I still don’t know whether to hear it as a joke or a threat.”
McMurtry’s songs are seldom LOL funny but they are rich with a dark humor almost foreign to contemporaries like Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams. Not quite as polemical as his George W. Bush-era broadsides “We Can’t Make It Here” or “Cheney’s Toy,” “State of the Union” lands closer to 2002’s “Out Here in the Middle,” which also speaks up for flyover Americans with a sardonic chuckle: “Now we even got Starbucks … what else you need?”
But his new song lands with a less than resounding verdict. “It’s the State of the Union, I guess,” McMurtry sings. “It’s always been iffy at best; we’ll do what we can with what we’ve got left.”
If the country is headed down the tubes, he suggests, then perhaps the most appropriate acknowledgement is a meek shrug. Unless one happens to be an artist, that is.
Our current cultural climate has already sparked a renaissance in certain areas of satire – films like the Oscar-nominated “Get Out”; TV shows such as Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show, “Saturday Night Live” and Showtime’s brand-new “Our Cartoon President”; and internet memes aplenty.
So why aren’t we seeing more songs like McMurtry’s?
“I don’t know,” admits the author. “I just happened to write that song; I didn’t set out to write it. But Nashville’s not going to write anything like that because they’re all selling camo and compound bows.”
Historically, satire has been one of the easiest, safest and most effective ways for ordinary citizens to criticize the wealthiest and most powerful members of society. Not that it’s ever been particularly easy or safe. As the old axiom goes: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
In the simplest terms, satire describes any creative work meant to expose human misbehavior or social injustice through parody, ridicule, irony, sarcasm or less caustic forms of humor.
To James McMurtry, successful satire “just has to get into your head somehow.”
In early Germanic and Celtic societies, notes L.A.-based screenwriter and professor David Misch, people attacked in song were known to break out in boils and even kill themselves.
Misch, whose credits include “Mork & Mindy” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” is a true satire scholar. His UCLA course “The World of Musical Satire” spun off a popular lecture, “The 15 Greatest Satirical Songs.” The class, some of which is available on YouTube, traces satire all the way back to the circa-1,200 B.C. Egyptian scrolls known as the Papyrus Anastasi. The Roman poet Horace is widely credited as history’s first satirist; he called satire “the truth with a smile.”
Misch’s lecture reaches back to “Yankee Doodle” and the Victorian-era operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but really picks up speed after World War II. Front and center are the songs of Tom Lehrer, the seemingly mild-mannered satirist whose droll, piano-based ditties scandalized ’60s audiences – listen to the crowd’s hysterical laughter on his 1965 record “That Was the Year That Was.” By skewering civil rights, the nuclear arms race and the Catholic Church, among other red-hot issues, Lehrer attacked many of the same taboos as comedian Lenny Bruce without resorting to R-rated language.
“If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one,” Lehrer once said, “it will all have been worthwhile.”
Dedicated satirists like Lehrer rarely become pop stars in their own right, but plenty of prominent musicians have used satire to suit their purposes.
When Bob Dylan put the nation’s then-leading right-wing organization on blast in “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” his refusal to play a different song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” caused a perfectly timed publicity avalanche for his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Ironically, Dylan quickly pulled the song (with a few others) from later pressings in favor of newer material, including the similarly scathing “Masters of War.”
Willie Nelson criticized current country-music trends on 1964’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” Built around the punchline “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year,” the song is, naturally, a sad waltz. His good friend Kinky Friedman ruffled his share of feathers – his 1975 taping remains the only “Austin City Limits” episode PBS has never aired – with songs like “A**hole From El Paso” and “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” a cheerful ode to the University of Texas at Austin tower sniper.
Long before becoming a perennial Oscar nominee, Randy Newman was a master satirist. The grandiose, elegiac “Sail Away,” a centerpiece of David Misch’s course, slowly reveals itself to be an antebellum slaveholder’s recruiting pitch. “Rednecks” is a withering rebuke of racism, both of the overt (Southern) and covert (Northern) varieties. And “Short People” has few good things to say about the vertically challenged, but was catchy enough to reach No. 2 in 1978.
“I doubt that all the listeners really cared about the statement he was trying to make,” notes McMurtry. “But it was a brilliant song.”
Contemporary music has become such an earnest affair, with young pop stars trying so hard to be adults and aging musicians trying so hard to stay youthful, that satire often feels like an extinct aspect of the medium.
It’s not dead, yet.
But it’s still there, in Green Day’s riotous “Holiday”; Father John Misty’s overblown self-importance; or Arcade Fire’s elaborate, partially apocryphal PR campaign for 2017’s “Everything Now,” which drew the indie-rock heroes’ first mixed reviews in more than a decade. And St. Vincent’s last two LPs are likewise laced with acerbic commentary in the form of songs like “Digital Witness” and “Los Ageless” – the latter featuring the couplet, “The lost sages hang out by the bar/Burn the pages of unwritten memoirs.”
Let’s not overlook Kendrick Lamar, either.
Social criticism, both on a neighborhood and national level, has been a primary theme for the Compton-bred rapper since Day One. Interestingly, his lyrics get sharper as his crossover appeal continues to grow. In the video for his hit song “Humble,” which has been viewed more than 445 million times, Lamar dresses up like the Pope while advising other rappers, and probably himself, to avoid getting too big for their britches.
At January’s Grammy Awards, the message “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar” flashed on monitors overhead as he spat a mashup of songs from Album of the Year nominee “DAMN,” including “DNA” and “XXX.” (Sample line: “The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives.”) As the medley drew to a close, gunshots rang out as his backup dancers, outfitted as a police riot squad, dropped to the floor one by one.
It was a powerful statement but also a brilliant performance. To hear McMurtry tell it, any song that dabbles in satire must stand on its own merits if its message is going to stick.
“You get in trouble if you put out something that’s just a sermon,” he says. “No matter how a good a sermon it is, it’s going to drag you down as an artist.”