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Songwriting and Protest with James McMurtry

As a young boy growing up in Texas, James McMurtry wanted to be Johnny Cash. His mother taught him to play a few chords on the guitar and he started writing songs around the age of 18.

Seven albums later, Childish Things was named Best Album of 2006 at the American Music Awards. "We Can't Make it Here," a grim lament about economic conditions in the United States, was also named Best Song. (And when you listen to it, you can hear Johnny Cash's influence in every intonation.)

Long before the album was released, McMurtry offered "We Can't Make it Here" as a free online download, just before the 2004 election.

"It instantly got more attention than anything I'd done on a CD in 10 years," he says. "I was completely surprised by the power of the Internet."

For McMurtry, songwriting begins with two lines and a melody. "If it keeps me up at night I finish the song," he says. "If it doesn't I just leave it."

A self-described misanthrope, McMurtry says he's learned over the years to play to an audience rather than at them. Still, his favorite part of touring is playing chords for sound check, when he is alone with the sound of the notes.

During a recent visit to NPR's Studio 4A, he talked to Scott Simon about his music and offered a tune or two on his 12-string guitar.

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