James McMurtry Shares His Rules for Eating While Touring and Building a Career In Music

February 24, 2015

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

We now tour in a fifteen passenger van rented from Capps Van and Car Rental in Austin. They used to rent Fords but they went to Chevy because Chevy gives better lease deals. Dash computer says we average 13.8 MPG, usually. The Fords were sturdier, but the Chevys load easier because the seat brackets are recessed into the floor so you don’t have to jigsaw your gear in between the brackets. We pull out the rear two seats to make room for the gear so we don’t need a trailer. Trailers are a hassle.

Back in the nineties we toured in a 1988 one ton Ford that had once been a Border Patrol paddy wagon. My father gave me that van. We had the cage moved back to the rear axle so we could pile gear up to the ceiling without it falling on us. I traded for two bench seats from the Austin Rehearsal Complex. The ARC always had van seats because young bands with new major label deals were always pulling them out of rental vans and leaving them there when they figured out they needed a few more square inches for the kick drum to fit. Third Coast Vans just happened to have the brackets because some guy had ordered two sets and never picked them up. The only real advantage to that van was the positrac rear end which got us through many an ice storm where a single trac would have left us in the ditch at best. We were a winter band back then. Competition was lighter in the winter. I don’t miss that van. We spent a lot of time waiting for tow trucks. Repairs are costly on vans because the engine wells are so tight you have to tear down half the engine to get to the one little part that needs replacing. It’s really cheaper to rent. If you buy a new van for touring purposes, you’re apt to wear it out long before you pay it off.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

Find the Indian restaurant. Six dollar all you can eat Buffet. Nothing off a Sysco truck.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I don’t break many. twelve dollars a set give or take.

Where do you rehearse?

We don’t rehearse.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

“Preacher drove by in his Cadillac; I waved at him but he didn’t wave back” from “Talkin’ at the Texaco”

Describe your first gig.

My first paying gig was in Benson Arizona next to the Elk’s Club. An old fiddler from St. David wrangled that gig and fronted the band. I played guitar rather badly, but the people danced and seem to enjoy it.

What was your last day job?

Bar back, Liberty Bar, San Antonio.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

Most of my income comes from the road now. I used to have more mailbox money. Royalties for downloads are less than they were for CDs, so we have to tour more.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

There are no shortcuts, there is only work.


James McMurtry spins stories with a poet’s pen (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter’s precision (“She Loves Me”). Proof: The acclaimed songwriter’s new Complicated Game. McMurtry’s first collection in six years spotlights a craftsman in absolutely peak form as he turns from political toward personal (“These Things I’ve Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman. I never make a conscious decision about what to write about.”

McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: “Much attention is paid to James McMurtry’s lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player … serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band.”

You can find McMurtry online and on the road.

  • Douglas P Ewen

    Thanks for the insight James … love your music … please perform in Durango CO

  • blarny

    Looking forward to seeing you at the High Noon in Madison this April.

  • CJK5H

    I am stunned that “Talkin at the Texaco” was his first song. Some people write their entire lives and don’t write a song of that quality.