“One hell of a songwriter,” McMurtry shares a few words about his life in music

James McMurtry crafts song lyrics of rich poetic resonance, but without a guitar in hand, he is a man of notoriously few words.

“He never really opens his mouth all the way,” observes Jason Isbell, affectionately, on a cover he streamed of McMurtry’s “Rachel’s Song,” “so when he’s talking to you, he could be saying the nicest things, but he sounds like he’s so mad at you. . . . That’s just how he is. James is a hard man. But he’s a good man, and one hell of a songwriter. He’s got that combination of poignancy, wit and beauty in conversational language.”

The taciturn troubadour comes by it honestly, of course. His father is Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and other monumental classics, but fils has established an indelible voice separate from his forebear’s.

The Texas-based artist, 60, normally tours year-round, but the pandemic has postponed these performances until now. To introduce his latest, and 10th, studio album, The Horses and The Hounds, McMurtry will play two sold-out acoustic sets at Red Clay Foundry in Duluth this Saturday. The album, his first in seven years, has generated a cicada-like critical buzz, making several “best of” lists, including Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 albums of 2021.

We caught up with him recently and used an oyster knife to pry loose some pearls.

Jason Isbell on James McMurtry: “He’s got that combination of poignancy, wit and beauty in conversational language.”

ArtsATL: Tell us about this new album. What makes it different?

McMurtry: I reunited with Ross Hogarth, who mixed my first two albums when he was with John Mellencamp. Part of this was recorded in California, at the Jackson Browne studio, so there is an LA vibe to it. I don’t know what it is about that place. The ghost of Warren Zevon seems to be stomping around among the guitar tracks. I don’t know how he got there. He never signed on for work for hire.

ArtsATL: What are the horses and hounds in the title song?

McMurtry: The personal demons you try to outrun. Some people think it’s about fox hunting. I had more in mind a Cool Hand Luke fugitive.

ArtsATL: You were an English major for a little while. Your narrators evoke Robert Browning’s “dramatic monologues.” You write from different points of view — a disillusioned veteran, a vaquero, an aging woman. How do you find these separate voices that are so different from your persona?

McMurtry: I always write about fictional characters. My songs are works of fiction. Sometimes I can’t always envision the characters that are going to come up. “If It Don’t Bleed” is vaguely autobiographical, pertains to my own life. I built it line by line, writing one line a day. But some songs take years. Equestrian women keep popping up, and I keep trying to kill them off.

ArtsATL: Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you know you have the germ of a successful song?

McMurtry: If I come up with one line or one melody that keeps me up at night, that’s my sign that there’s a song there is worth working on, worth building. Then it becomes a matter of mechanics — the reverse, chorus structure and groove. It’s important that a song makes its own point, that the speaker stay in character, even if that character happens not to agree with you. You can ruin a song by injecting your opinion into it. For example, one of my songs is told from the point of view of a boy in a fishing town who doesn’t like government regulations on what he does. Now, I the writer think we do need regulations on our fisheries, but I’m not pulling my living out of the bay.

ArtsATL: Seems you may have had a problematic muse or two. A couple of these tracks sound as if you’re addressing a very vexing, unpredictable woman. “If you had a tail, it would be twitching,” is one clever line.

McMurtry: My son Curtis is also a singer-songwriter. He said something true: You rarely have just one muse. It’s hard to write about just one of them. There are usually five or six in the mix for a song.

ArtsATL: How did you know you wanted to write songs, as opposed to other forms of creative writing?

McMurtry: I grew up wanting to be Johnny Cash. My mother taught me chords on the guitar.

ArtsATL: You live in Austin.

McMurtry: Lockhart, actually, south of Austin. (Grunt.) All of California has moved there and brought valet parking with ’em.

ArtsATL: Do you consider yourself part of the Texas school of songwriters — Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, those characters?

McMurtry: No. I’ve studied all of those guys, but I don’t consider myself part of a school. Kris Kristofferson is a big influence on me, though. But also Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry. “C’est La Vie” is up there — it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein good.

ArtsATL: The sons of famous men often have a complicated relationship with their fathers. What was your relationship like with your dad? Did you feel inspired or overshadowed, or a mix of both?

McMurtry: I would argue that all fathers and sons have complicated relationships. He said verse and prose use different muscles. He didn’t write songs, and I don’t write prose. He was definitely an influence with the oral tradition, and the eye for detail. He basically had a 19th-century existence. When he was growing up, if people needed to get anywhere, they went on horseback. Their entertainment was sitting on the porch, telling stories that would often get embellished with each retelling. I think that aspect of him influenced me.

ArtsATL: Artists usually have milestone moments when they know they are doing something right, whether it’s a certain award or accolade, or just a couple dancing to a song. What is one of your milestones?

McMurtry: My first concert, when I was small, was Johnny Cash. I opened for Jason Isbell in that same Virginia venue and looked out at the row where I sat as a child. That felt like a milestone. But, really, just the fact that I can call up my agent and get work is enough of a milestone for me.


Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.

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