James McMurtry stokes protest fires with song at The Hamilton

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Entertainment,Music,Nancy Dunham

James McMurtry is famously reticent in conversation, even with his closest friends, yet he is heralded by many as one of the most articulate songwriters of his generation.

That's a sentiment author Stephen King expressed to Entertainment Weekly when he said, "The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation" and noted McMurtry's song "We Can't Make It Here" from "Childish Things" album, "may be the best American protest song since [Dylan's] 'Masters of War.' Love it or hate, you'll never forget it." John Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry's 1989 debut "Too Long in the Wasteland," says that he plays like he has lived a lifetime. But McMurtry is quiet when asked what spurs his songwriting.

"You got to get it out of you, for sure," said McMurtry when a CNN reporter noted that he expresses anger well in his songs. "It will eat you up if you don't."

Onstage
James McMurtry with Grace Pettis
» Where: 8:30 p.m. Friday
» When: The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW
» Info: $31.50; 202-787-1000; thehamiltondc.com/live

One might think that expressing feelings through art is something of a family occupation. McMurtry is the son of much-lauded author Larry McMurtry, whose best known work includes "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment." It's easy to hear a similar passion in each of the McMurtry's work although James said the two stay out of each others' work.

"He doesn't write verse and I don't write prose," said the Grammy Award nominated McMurtry. "We sort of stay away from each other's realms the best we can."

Indeed, McMurtry told Don Wilcox, editor-in-chief of BluesWax, that he only reads about one book a year.

"My dad collected rare books and sold rare books," McMurtry explains. "Books were around me constantly, and they just became part of the walls. I didn't think about reading them."

For his part, McMurtry doesn't find that unusual. He learned a lot about writing when he was growing up, just soaking in lessons from his father.

"I was probably [more influenced] by my father. I was around him more. I heard his stories, so I got a narrative structure and sense of place and setting. The stories he told around the dinner table, a lot of them didn't get in print," he says.

"What I write is fiction. You want to make it sound authentic. You want to put in details so that anybody that knows anything about what you're talking about will think you do, too. The beauty of verse in songs is you can be vague and not give away what you don't know."

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