There are few singer-songwriters of the caliber of James McMurtry.

McMurtry will open tonight for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Heinz Hall.

McMurtry has had his keen eye focused on presenting and empathizing  with characters that populate America since his first release, “Too  Long in the Wasteland” in 1989, through to his latest  critically-acclaimed LP,  “Complicated Game.” He currently has a new single “State of the Union” available for free on his website,

“State of the Union” perfectly captures middle America in this age of  Trump, complete with a family disagreement over a birthday dinner at  Golden Corral.

The Swerve Magazine recently spoke with McMurtry from his home in  Texas about the surprising origin of “State of the Union” as well as  Trump’s take on Pittsburgh and the general state of the union.

The Swerve Magazine: Let’s talk “State of the Union,” the single that you released right after Christmas, how did that song come about?

James McMurtry: I started with a line and a melody. I always start with a couple of lines and melody. What happened was, there is a town on the Texas coast. Everywhere I go in the country it seems that every region has its own ways of screwing up Spanish names. In Texas, we have down on the coast a town called Palacios and Texans say it that it rhymes with fascist. (That rhyme) is how I got the song going.  There might not be a single fascist living anywhere near Palacios, but if we learned to properly pronounce Spanish that song would have never happened (laughs).

SM: It is nice to ask that question and get an answer that is not expected. That is not at all how I had that song being created. So,  that line led to that song?

JM: I never knew how Texans pronounced the name of that town until I  heard somebody from South Texas talking in a restaurant one day and  thought, “Oh, that is how to say it.”

SM: How long did it take to write the song from then?

JM: It was a couple of months. I had the first couple of verses real fast. It was a little while before I recorded it that I got the chorus and then I got the last long verse about the mother’s birthday party.

SM: The mother’s birthday party at Golden Corral, that scene is so on the mark.

JM: I know people that go to the Golden Corral for special occasions.  There are whole spots of the country where Golden Corral is considered to be fine dining. But you are in Pittsburgh; you have Primanti’s.

SM: That we do.

JM: There is a promoter in Dallas that turned us on to that. He’s from  Pittsburgh. He drove a truck there when they had to turn the streetlights on during the day.

That kind of hits because Trump made that quip about Pittsburgh and he wants to be the president of the people of Pittsburgh and not Paris when he backed out of the Paris Climate Accord. It seems to me having been to both towns that Pittsburgh is way greener than Paris.

I have met homeless people in Pittsburgh that feed themselves out of the river. They go down to the Monongahela and catch some sauger and walleye. You couldn’t do that in Paris as no one would eat fish out of the river there. I don’t know what you guys are selling, but it’s  working.

Pittsburgh is an example of how a green economy can work. It seems to be thriving. I didn’t start touring there until about 1992. By that time, the air had cleaned up, and everything was coming back. The city seems to have a good club district and lots of commerce of some sort going on. But Trump is preaching to people that still think that smokestacks are still blocking out the sun in Pittsburgh. He is selling it as the industrial, steel-town stereotype.

SM: That is what is so frightening with Trump is how out of touch he is with the actual world around him. I guess the GOP may well be out of touch with reality too as they are pushing these tax cuts that is anything but.

JM: They are towing the line of whoever has got them in their pocket.

SM: That brings up a point I read in prepping for this interview, you were touring the country in November of 2016, did you have a sense that the election was going to break the way it did?

JM: I definitely thought it could. I hoped it wouldn’t. I drove all over the country, and I didn’t see very many Hillary yard signs,  especially in the middle of the country. I saw plenty of Trump signs in the Northeast, in New Hampshire, in Maine.

SM: I just drove across rural Western PA a couple of weeks ago, and there are still Trump signs up.

JM: Oh certainly. That didn’t surprise me a bit. I remember the most shocking thing from the election night of 2000, was before Florida even came into play. It looked like Pennsylvania was up for grabs. CNN  was interviewing Tom Ridge then governor of Pennsylvania and later head of Homeland Security. They asked him straight to his face, “What  are you doing to deliver this state to Bush?” Ridge looked right into  the camera and said, “Well, we are currently trying to hold down a  massive voter turnout in Philadelphia which could hurt us.” The disturbing part was CNN, the supposedly liberal reporter, didn't say,  “Excuse me, governor, what the hell do you mean you are trying to hold down the turnout? Doesn’t that violate the founding principle of the  democracy that you are sworn to uphold?” He didn’t say anything like that.

That was 2000 that showed me what the Republicans were all about.  Before that, I used to vote a split ticket. I don’t anymore.

SM: It is pretty amazing that at times, that they show their hands and you think that you could not possibly have just seen that so obviously.  But then something else happens down the line, and you realize it is much worse than what you thought it was.

JM: The willingness for people out in Middle America to vote for Trump shouldn’t surprise us. Did anyone notice in the mid-90s that a couple of guys blew the side off of a building in Oklahoma City because they didn’t like the government? Everybody forgot about that after 9-11.

SM: I think too that a lot of people that are on either coast either never realized or just didn’t know that President Obama was not a  popular president in the middle of the country. He was not as well liked as they liked him.

JM: Definitely. He was hated.

SM: Yes, he was not popular. You touch on that in “State of the Union”  when you bring race into play. I think that is what smacked me,  personally, in the face around the election was just how racist, and sexist, this country still is, yet we won’t talk about it.

JM: It wasn’t legitimized for awhile, and that is the problem it has been legitimized. It might work out to our advantage in the long run because with all this ugliness being legitimized and it is out in the open where we can see it, maybe we can do something about it now.