James McMurtry knows a bit about life’s uncertainties, which he celebrates in the bittersweet song, “Vaquero” on his brilliant new album “The Horses and the Hounds”, citing a wise elder’s advice: “Brinca la Vida!” (Life jumps!)
Until the covid pandemic forced him off the road, McMurtry earned his living by constantly traveling in North America and Europe performing songs from his many acclaimed albums. in the great movie “Lonesome Dove” (based on a novel authored by James’s father Larry McMurtry), the young James had a small but poignant role as a shy cattle-drive vaquero declines fleshly temptation.
During this pandemic, McMurtry’s performances have been limited to popular virtual concerts streamed from his home near Austin. He is happy to be returning to live concerts, with three solo shows scheduled in New Mexico the first week of September. His Taos and Santa Fe shows are already sold out, but tickets are still available from AMP Concerts (ampconcerts.org) for McMurtry’s Albuquerque performance outdoors at Casa Flamenca on Rio Grande Boulevard Tuesday, September 7 at 7 pm.
Chatting by phone in late August, McMurtry explains how his wistful song “Vaquero” is dedicated to the fond memory of screenwriter Bill Witliff, who died, at age 79, in 2019. “Bill pretty much saved the movie ‘Lonesome Dove’”, says James, “The first cut was done according to the tastes of television executives–all close-ups of Angelica Huston, with little cattle or scenery. Bill put all that cattle drive and cowboy stuff back in, including those range scenes shot up in Black Lake, New Mexico which they pretended were in Montana! I enjoyed riding around in those scenes! And Bill arranged for the purchase of my archives which gave me an income when we had to stop touring, so I am deeply grateful to him.”
With a late father who was a beloved novelist, James continues the family story-telling tradition as “a fiction writer in verse” whose deftly-sketched, detailed story-songs draw listeners into the lives of admirable but troubled characters, such as the beleaguered female soldier in “Ft Walton Wake-Up Call” or “Jackie”, the horse-loving woman truck driver who “jack-knifed on black ice with an oversized load”, or the regretful murderer recalling the kick of a revolver in “Decent Man”, a song based on a Wendell Berry short story. Despite his crime, the listener can’t help but empathize with the killer in that song. James, (who likes to shoot guns for sport but deplores the new Texas no-permit gun law), comments, “That’s really the nature of a popular song, that the listener can hear his or her self in it.”
Asked if his usually-fictional songs are ever from his own viewpoint, James admits, “Well, sometimes my life gets into them, but I never try to write a straight autobiography. That’s too boring!” He does admit to being a life-long confirmed atheist, much like the cheerful narrator of his anthemic song, “If It Don’t Bleed”, who toasts, “Save your prayers for yourself, I raise my glass to your health!”
James McMurtry shows are always cause for dancing celebration, and his return to New Mexico should be no exception.