Music Interview: Singer-Songwriter James McMurtry — Playing With Words
By Blake Maddux
James McMurtry’s Facebook page describes him as “Steadily Shedding Fans Since 1989.”
In a 1992 interview, singer-songwriter James McMurtry said, “When I was about 7, she taught me three chords on the guitar. It started me off, and I learned the rest on my own.”
“She” was his mother, Shakespeare scholar and University of Richmond English professor Josephine “Jo” McMurtry (née Ballard).
In the same interview, he acknowledged that “if it wasn’t for dad’s connections, I wouldn’t have made it anywhere,”
“Dad” is Larry, the novelist whose works have been adapted for the large screen for movies such as Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment and the small one in the form of several productions based on his Lonesome Dove book series. (Larry McMurtry also co-wrote the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain.)
Thus, it is hardly surprising that James McMurtry ended up doing things with words for a living, although his “I don’t read that much” admission in a recent phone interview that I did with him was very much so.
McMurtry’s Facebook page describes him as “Steadily Shedding Fans Since 1989.”
It’s a shame if this demonstrably accurate, as it would mean that fewer people have heard his latest album, 2021’s masterful The Horses and the Hounds, than any of his previous efforts.
However, the fans that he has earned – and presumably kept – include a wide spectrum of familiarly named writers and fellow music makers.
Among them are former University of Maine student newspaper columnist-turned-novelist Stephen King, who said, “James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation”); and self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics” Robert Christgau, who named McMurtry’s 2005 song “We Can’t Make It Here” the #1 song of the aughts.
Members of the latter camp are late Monkee Michael Nesmith (“James McMurtry is a true Americana poet”), John Mellencamp (who produced McMurtry’s first two records), INXS keyboardist Andrew Farriss (“Lyrically gritty, musically gutsy …we need James McMurtry bringin’ us more”), and former and current (respectively) Drive-By Truckers Jason Isbell (“I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics”) and Patterson Hood (“McMurtry might be the best topical writer performing right now”).
The Arts Fuse: What do you think accounts for the “Los Angeles vibe” and “The ghost of Warren Zevon” that you say is present on The Horses and the Hounds?
James McMurtry: I don’t know. We recorded it in Santa Monica at Jackson Browne’s place, but it’s like a newer room. I don’t know if Zevon ever recorded in there. The guitars reminded me of his stuff.
AF: Randy Newman once said, “Interviewers will ask why it took me five years to make an album and I’ll say, ‘It didn’t take five years — I didn’t do anything for five years. I watched TV like you do’.” Would that be your answer to why there was a six-year gap between Complicated Game and The Horses and the Hounds?
JM: (laughs) Records come out when they do. My second record came out like three years after my first and everybody complained about that. Well, it was ready to go a year later, but it got shelved for two years! Stuff like that happens all the time.
In the case of this record, we tracked in 2019 and overdubbed for the rest of 2019 and didn’t quite get it done before lockdown happened. So that slowed up the process a good bit. We still had keyboards to do and still had to mix it and still had to master it. Then we couldn’t tour for a while, so the release was really the label’s call on that.
AF: Does “the horses and the hounds” mean anything specific?
JM: To me, it was just about inner demons. You know, horses and hounds are what you use to chase foxes or fugitives. Either one. In Texas, the prison system had like a dog program up until about five years ago. They quit tracking escaped prisoners out of Huntsville [Texas] not very long ago at all, and the dog handler was usually on horseback to keep up with the dogs.
JM: I don’t know that I’ve written anything about it. I don’t decide to write about a certain topic. I hear words that go with it and if it makes a cool song then I finish it.
AF: There is the reference to “Fox News fiction” on “Ft. Walton Wake-up Call.”
JM: There is that, yeah. It’s pretty flippant. And there’s the mention of the wall, and if we want walls built down here we usually hire Mexicans. And quite often Mexican nationals.
AF: That song adds a bit of frivolity after seven mostly somber tracks. Does losing your glasses happen to you frequently enough that you felt compelled to write about it?
JM: No, I just heard that in my head and I needed a chorus and I just stuck it in there as a placeholder for whenever I got the real chorus. Then I played it for the guys and they liked it as is. So that saved me some work, and I thought, I’ll just leave it in.
Playing with words is where that came from. I don’t remember where I started it, but every year we play the 30A [Songwriters] Festival around Graton Beach in the Florida Panhandle [where Fort Walton is located]. And it always freezes, ‘cause we get the same north wind that we get in Texas over there. It never fails that we end up playing outside at 30 degrees in Florida.
AF: “Canola Fields” includes several very specific geographic references that I don’t necessarily associate with you. Was that song inspired by actual events?
JM: It’s fiction, but I know those places from having toured through them. I would know what a canola field was like if we hadn’t been back and forth across Alberta and Saskatchewan in the summer a bunch of times. And Santa Cruz is one of our major markets for us. There’s a station there, KPIG, out of Watsonville [California] that’s always been a huge supporter. So we’ve been around Santa Cruz, Aptos, San Jose, Saratoga, all up in there.
JM: Those are fiction. “Decent Man” I actually stole from Wendell Berry. That’s a short story of his that I spun around and changed the point of view and the season of the year and the chamber of the pistol. But that’s the Wendell Berry story called “Pray Without Ceasing.” It’s a great story.
I did call Mr. Berry and offer him credit. I usually don’t do that, but I thought I’d at least ask in his case. He called back and said, “Nah, it’s a different medium. Use it.” I didn’t know him, my father did. You have to call him on a real phone on his farm in Kentucky. He doesn’t do email or any of that stuff. [Here is a 2022 New Yorker story about him.]
AF: What got you thinking about religion for what was the first single, “If It Don’t Bleed“?
JM: I got the concept from a cousin of mine who was strung out on cocaine for a while. After he’d been to hell and back and I was complaining about something trivial, he said, “Quit bitching. If it don’t bleed, it don’t matter.”
AF: “Vaquero” is dedicated to Bill Wittliff. Who is he and why is the song sung partly in Spanish?
JM: He wrote the screenplay for the Lonesome Dove miniseries and was an old family friend. I hadn’t talked to him for a while, and then I kind of recently caught up with him. Then I was out on the road and I’d heard he’d passed away. That’s one of the few songs that I’ve actually written to one person.
Back in the ‘60s he did a really great photography book called Vaquero. He had a friend who managed a big ranch down in Mexico that was something like 750,000 acres with no cross fencing. It’s a really great book.
And he had another photo book called La Vida Brinca, “Life Jumps.” It’s a term they use in northern Mexico. So I incorporated both of those in the song.
AF: You worked with Ross Hogarth early in your career and again on 2002’s Saint Mary of the Woods. What did he bring to The Horses and the Hounds as a producer?
JM: This is the first time that I’ve worked with him as a producer. He recorded and mixed my first two records.
He has really amazing ears and good ideas. He got probably the best vocal sound out of me that anybody has. An unrelenting attention to detail is what he brings. Every little thing matters. You don’t think it does, but it does.
Or it can, rather. There are records that are just kind of tossed off that turn out to be great. That’s the exception more than the rule. Viva Terlingua comes to mind. That’s a classic Jerry Jeff Walker record. They all got drunk and went out to Luckenbach [Texas], played a show and recorded it. It turned out to be a great record.
AF: How has your perspective on touring in real places in front of real people been affected by the COVID years?
JM: I didn’t think I would miss it ‘cause my back didn’t hurt after a little while. But then I went out and did a couple of tours, and it’s just good to do something you’re kind of competent at. It makes you feel good so ya gotta keep doing it.
AF: Fill in the blank. I wish that I were half the singer-songwriter that _________ is.
JM: Kris Kristofferson. He’s the first one who comes to mind, so I’m not gonna overthink it.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.