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The Other Homeland Report

Songwriter James McMurtry's characters don't mince words about the state of their unions. Neither does he.



"Homeland is a word used for power, really," James McMurtry says. For over a decade now McMurtry's been writing American stories and putting them to music. In a sense it's the family business: His father, novelist Larry McMurtry, built a career taking on and breaking open the myths of the American West, looking for anything still vital within.

James focuses on a more contemporary landscape than his father. And of course he puts his findings to music, fronting a sinewy, guitar-driven folk rock band colored by more than just a tinge of the rattlesnake country blues.

Aside from that, it's pretty much the same trade. A parade of characters from the American interior: some cynical, some wild, and the others far too quiet.

Some are the grown-up children of the farmers who lost their land about a decade back, now wondering what their true inheritance is. Some are aging lovers, either in desperate need of a dead reckoning or running from one full-tilt. Then there's the white trash wonders, cooking bathtub speed and crystal meth because the 'shine don't sell so well anymore.

And in their midst is a man standing very still, looking into a dry river bed for any hint of redemption, or renewal.

Once the country looked West, and then North for such things. Then it looked straight up into Space. When that petered out, it looked to a generation of children. For a while after that, silicon. It's hard to know where to look anymore.

McMurtry's characters provide a very different homeland security report than the ones we get from Washington these days. They've been doing so for years.

Since the word "homeland" is being used so much these days, it seemed to make sense to ask him about it when we spoke last week. Apparently he'd been thinking about it for awhile. Like his characters, McMurtry didn't mince words.

"Homeland" is a propaganda term. It's just another instrument of power, which the Bush administration has capitalized on to a sickening degree.

What's worse is that we're just letting him do it: Everybody's terribly passive. In my view we don't have a president, we have a dictator, in that he does not preside over the government. That's the root of the word president, to preside. [Bush] does not preside, he dictates; he dictates policy, and is therefore a dictator in my view.

I'm really disgusted with the Democrats right now because they've displayed they're every bit as willing as he is to sacrifice other people's lives for their political careers. They seem afraid.

The president's not supposed to have that kind of power. He's not supposed to be able to just make war when he feels like it. And we're not supposed to just be able to invade a country when we feel like it. If we can do that, then can China do it?

Sort of brushing aside international law, weak and unenforceable as it sometimes is, it's still necessary to have some sort of order in this world. If we're going to toss it all aside, we may not like what we wind up with.

I can't believe Bush and they are just so stupid as to think that once they start a war they can end it when they feel like it. It doesn't work like that. There's not an off button.

And they're willing to risk that just because Bush lost the Senate. He has no one but himself to blame for that: he treated one of his own very badly and the guy had enough of it and switched sides. So now he wants to start a war to get it back.

Their term "homeland" doesn't mean a damn thing to me. Not that I don't love my country or anything, but that's just something they thought up to get everybody in line.

We talk for a bit about the characters in his songs. Most of them start similarly: a couple of lines, a melody.

I continue the song from whatever character I started with. I try to stay in character, and let that guy write the song. You have to give a song its head, like you do a good horse. If you fight it, it'll fight you.

It can get one in trouble. Even though you're writing from a character, you're singing it with your voice, and singing it to people who don't know the process. So they hear something and they're going to think that's you talking.

After recording "Safe Side" on the Candyland record, my friend Tish Hinojosa came up to me and said, "I've got some friends down in the Rio Grande Valley who want to know what in the hell you mean by that." I said I don't mean anything, I just wrote the song.

I got a snippy review in No Depression just this past month from someone who didn't get it, or did get it and tried to make a name for himself.

The people in your song talk about the deals they made: with their parents, lovers and country. Some of the deals went sour. Some of them weren't such good deals over the long haul, but they stayed in them.

Some of them get out of the deal (laughs)

But the songs seem about what makes people stick together, or don't.

They used to use another kind of glue. They used the religion glue, the family glue. Stuff's not as strong as it used to be. I wouldn't say that's a bad thing entirely, depending on the religion, on the family. EndBlock

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