James McMurtry once traded a shotgun for a guitar. It wasn’t a political statement–he still likes to hunt turkeys. But guitars have been very good to him over the years. He’s a self- taught master of electric and acoustic, especially the Telecaster and the Gibson twelve-string, each of which he learned “on the job” as he told The Paper. in a late September phone chat.
His seasoned touring band is top-shelf: Tim Holt on guitar and accordion, Darren Hess on drums and on bass, Cornbread. They’ll back up McMurtry on Oct. 6 at the Lobo Theater. You’ll dance at a James McMurtry show, even if you dance in your seat, to his story-songs, like “Copper Canteen,” a waltz that 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 in northern Wisconsin. He learned of canola fields in Alberta, Canada, and brought them into the opening song on “The Horses and the Hounds,” his latest album: I was thinking ’bout you, crossing Southern Alberta/Canola fields on a July day/About the same chartreuse as that sixty-nine Bug/You used to drive around San Jose.
McMurtry is specific, detailed and direct in his writing, and his tales are often 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.
When I ask about the strong-but-sad horse-riding women in many of his songs, McMurtry laughed. “Probably the only reason I rode horses in my adult life was to be around horse-riding women.” He also added, in a more serious tone, that “Sadness is a part of life and
it doesn’t hurt to bring it out in song.”
On his new album, the songs “If It Don’t Bleed” (Keep your prayers to yourself/I raise my glass to your health) and “Vaquero” seem closest to personal statements, though the wry chorus of “Ft. Walton Wake Up Call” (I keep losing my glasses) may suggest how the 60-year old McMurtry is coping with age.
“Vaquero,” he told me, was inspired by the death of his friend Bill Wittliff, whom James described as “one of the most successful screenwriters in history, who saved the movie version of ‘Lonesome Dove.’” McMurtry recalled riding a horse as a “nondescript cowboy” in that film when scenes were shot in Black Lake, New Mexico. Among other famous folks McMurtry mentions having worked with over his long career are the musicians Stephen Burton, David Bromberg, Kinky Friedman, Kris Kristofferson, Jason Isbell and John Cougar Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry’s first album. “The Horses and the Hounds” was recorded at Jackson Browne’s Los Angeles studio, and contains what McMurtry told me that he feels are his best vocal performances.
Texas-born, McMurtry grew up in Virginia and attended college in Arizona before settling in the Austin area. During the pandemic, he began a semi-weekly series of popular online solo performances from his home studio, which he said he hopes to resume someday.
James is the son of the late author/screen writer Larry McMurtry, of “Lonesome Dove” and
“The Last Picture Show.” Is he a fiction writer or poet himself? McMurtry scoffed. “No, I only took one poetry course in college, and prose fiction is too slow for me. I’m a songwriter. I work in verse and rhyme and try to fit the words to the meter. I get some words in my head, then a melody, and I try to imagine who might say those words. I work backwards to develop the characters and their stories.”
McMurtry comes across as a gentleman but he can strike hard with wit and sardonic humor. His song “Operation Never Mind” calls-out American public ignorance of our costly military adventures: 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
won’t let the cameras near the fighting/That way we won’t have another Vietnam/ No one knows, ’cause no one sees it on TV.
He doesn’t always write about political matters. “I don’t write for causes,” he said. Yet, his song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” has become an ironic working-class anthem. And he has slyly called-out rising American reactionaries in “State of the Union”: My brother’s a
fascist/Lives in Palacios. He admires Beto O’Rourke but knows not all his Texas neighbors do.
“I’ve got right-wing fans, too, you know,” he said.
Those conservative fans might be attracted to his music as much by its gritty country-rock
intensity as by its lyrical content. Those lyrics are McMurtry’s strong suit. Stephen
King has called him “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”
Asked what the “The Horses and the Hounds” of his new album’s title song signify, McMurtry said, “Facing the internal demons chasing you. But you know a song means as much to the listener as to the writer, so no writer can really tell you what a song is about. That is up to you.”
McMurtry recommends that his concert audiences wear N95 masks. “I can’t enforce it but if I were in a crowd that long, I would wear one.” He said he wears a mask in all public places except when onstage.
Details on the Oct. 6 show are at https://www.ampconcerts.org
James McMurtry’s official webpage is https://www.jamesmcmurtry.com