James McMurtry’s radically honest Texas sound

July 22, 2022
James McMurtry
James McMurtry at the Tumble Root Brewery in Santa Fe on July 6. Photos: Bill Nevins

Texan singer/songwriter/guitarist James McMurtry doesn’t pull his punches. He’s a gentle guy, but when he aims to hit governmental or human failings and hypocrisy, he strikes hard, often with wit and sardonic humour.

On McMurtry’s latest album, The Horses and the Hounds, he takes aim at United States war-policy in his song “Operation Never Mind”: “We got an operation goin' on/And it don't have to trouble me and you/The country boys will do the fighting/Now that fighting's all a country boy can do/We got a handle on it this time/No one's gonna tell us we were wrong/We won't let the cameras near the fighting/That way we won't have another Vietnam/No one knows, 'cause no one sees/No one cares, 'cause no one knows/No one knows, 'cause no one sees it on TV.” The song also calls out sexual predation in the military ranks, farcical war propaganda, parasitic mercenaries and willful American ignorance.

McMurtry writes from his observations as he travels the US and Canada with his band, on what has become an almost-endless tour over the past three decades or so.

He doesn’t always write about political matters. “I don’t write for causes,” McMurtry told Green Left, while cooking beans on a temperamental stove-burner at his Texas home. Yet, his 2004 song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” has become an ironic anthem of the underpaid, under-employed US working class.

When he called-out war-mongering President George W Bush as “Cheney’s Toy” or skewered rising American fascism in “State of the Union”, McMurtry certainly gave welcome musical support — intentional or not — to the cause of resistance.

Decidedly left-leaning but no “tub-thumper”, McMurtry doesn’t pander to or patronise his audiences, who clearly are happy to get what they see and hear — long graying hair, gruff conversational drawl and all.

McMurtry’s song, “State of the Union” begins: “My brother’s a fascist/Lives in Palacios”. How can you not like that rhyme? Lyrics are his strong suit, highly praised by novelist Stephen King, songwriter Jason Isbell and legions of devoted fans who, like myself, often travel far to see and hear him in concert.

Asked his impressions as a travelling performer of the present state of the US, McMurtry laughs, “It’s bat-shit crazy!” His observation is that “everything’s falling apart, at least in the middle of the country”.

“But it does get better when you get into New York City, where things are still functioning, mostly,” he says.

He’s a largely self-taught master of electric and acoustic guitars, especially the Telecaster, the Red Rocker and the Gibson 12-string, each of which he learned “on the job”.

His long-time, seasoned touring band is top-shelf: Tim Holt on guitar and accordion, Darren Hess on drums and “Cornbread” on bass. Their oft-lilting beat is fiercely compulsive. You dance at a James McMurtry show, if you’ve got the ability to do so, even if you dance in your seat. You’ve got no choice.

While you dance, you hear stories like “Copper Canteen”, which begins: “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me while I’m cleaning my gun/I’ll wipe the blood off the tail gate when deer season’s done.” McMurtry tells me he got the idea for that song when touring in northern Wisconsin and New England and contemplating how folks get through the long winters there. “Deer hunting and ice fishing, mostly,” he said.

“I first learned the term ‘bridge-tender’ up there — the guy who raises and lowers the draw-bridges”, he adds. Likewise, he first learned of Canola fields when touring in Alberta, Canada, and brought that term into the stunning opening song on The Horses and the Hounds.

At McMurtry’s Santa Fe show, he upped the ante in his live vocal delivery, encouraged by recent critical praise of his vocals on The Horses and the Hounds, which was recorded in Jackson Browne’s Los Angeles studio and produced by Ross Hogarth.

Texas-born, McMurtry grew up in Virginia and attended college in Arizona before settling in Austin, where he is a regular club performer when not on the road. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when touring became impossible, he began to perform online from his home studio.

When asked if he considers himself a story-teller, McMurtry scoffs, “No, I’m a song-writer. I work in verse and rhyme, and try to fit the stories to the meter. I get some words in my head, then a melody, and I try to imagine who might say those words. I kind of work backwards to develop the characters and their stories.”

Adapting to changing technology, McMurtry says he used to scribble lyrics on bar napkins, but now he taps them out on his cell phone while traveling, for future shaping into songs.

To my surprise, McMurtry tells me he is no big fan of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. “I haven’t listened much to Dylan in years.” McMurtry is more direct than Dylan, if sometimes his songs are couched in the voice of an assumed persona or character, as in “Rachel's Song”:

“I wrecked the El Camino/Would have been DWI/So I just walked off and left it/Laying on its side/I probably ought to quit my drinking/But I don't believe I will/If anyone can claim they're all right/So can I.”

Asked what “The Horses and the Hounds” of his new album’s title song signify, McMurtry says, “Internal demons chasing you. Not necessarily death.”

Does McMurtry have any plans to tour in Australia? “No”, he says with a hint of sadness, “we can’t afford the expense of performing outside the US and Canada unless the tour is under-written … But yes, we would love to go there if we ever could.”

[Visit James McMurtry’s official webpage.]

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