• Home

Americana’s James McMurtry

Americana’s James McMurtry

Has A Way With Words…Just Like His Famous Father

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That would be true in the case of acclaimed singer-songwriter James McMurtry following in the creative footsteps of his Pulitzer prize-winning novelist father, Larry McMurtry. His father was famous for writing the novel Lonesome Dove, which was turned into an Emmy-winning television mini-series, based on Texas rangers and the old west. His first novel in 1961, Horseman, Pass By, was turned into the movie Hud starring Paul Newman. His novel, Terms of Endearment, was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie. His novel, The Last Picture Show, based on contemporary Texas, was a groundbreaking, critical and commercial success when adapted into a classic movie in 1971. Larry McMurtry recently passed away in 2021 at age 84.

This leads us to James… Long ago, he was touted as a new Dylan. Similarities lie in the lyrical genius that he also possesses. McMurtry is more of a common man’s spokesperson. He’s a cross between Steve Earle and John Prine with a touch of John Hiatt and John Mellencamp thrown in. In fact, John Mellencamp put his stamp on James’ 1989 debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, by producing it. It was a stunning debut and the first single “Painting By Numbers” expresses the frustration of being a powerless peon in the work world with the lyrics, “You jump when they say jump, you don’t ask how high…. you work from the neck down, you don’t call the shots.” His deadpan delivery of being company robots hits home for many working Americans. James was Americana before it was a category. Americana is an amalgam of American roots music with folk, blues, R&B, gospel, rock and roll, jazz and bluegrass. Call it Alternative Country, Roots Rock, Americana or just call it great rock vignettes set to some amazingly catchy music that fits his gravelly voice perfectly. He’s like a modern-day rockin’ Johnny Cash and vocally even sounds like Johnny. His song, “You Can’t Make It Here,” is the voice of everyman that the listener can relate to. Senator Bernie Sanders used it for his campaign song when he was running for Senate. “Chaney’s Toy” is a rant about the former governor of Texas, George W. Bush, set to a hypnotic slide guitar. On his new song “Canola Fields,” he sings about, “cashing in on a 30-year crush/ You can’t be young and do that.” He repeats, “You can’t be young and do that” again for emphasis and that thought sinks in. He’s a detail man and his descriptions paint graphic pictures. Many of his songs are realistic and comical takes on relationships. Like John Prine, he is a funny guy. Humorously, he says, “Musicians are in the service industry, basically we sell beer.“ Those people serving the drinks are your co-workers.” An interviewer once asked if he lived in Texas. He answered, “I live in Austin that is surrounded by Texas.”

His latest album, Horses and The Hounds, is his tenth album and it does not disappoint. He seems to get better with age. The return of legendary producer Ross Hogarth (John Forgerty, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen) working with McMurtry again is a giant plus. Hogarth had recorded McMurtry’s first two albums, Too Long In The Wasteland and Candyland and later mixed his 2002 album Saint Mary Of The Woods. They first met when Hogarth was a recording engineer for John Mellencamp’s studio. Guitarist David Grissom, who also worked on those three releases, returns with some stellar fretwork. This album is also McMurtry’s debut album on Americana record label, New West (Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller.) New West president, John Allen, sums it up best, “McMurtry perfectly fits a label housing artists who perform real music for real people.” One of his new songs, “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” is jam-packed with humor mixed with reality in a rap format that repeats the infectious chorus of “I keep losing my glasses,” which he repeats four times. His vocal phrasing is so spot on and the music is just perfect. It all works.


Recently, at singer-songwriter Steve Forbert’s concert, Steve was joking about all his own songs being so wordy. The same can be said of James’ songs but there are no wasted words. Like every picture tells a story, these words evoke a vivid picture of life in America, especially concentrating on life in his lone star state of Texas. Like his dad, he has the gift of telling a human story that hits home.

James has been called a songwriter’s songwriter. Americana superstar Jason Isbell raves, “James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on earth and these days he’s working at the top of his game. He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up the next.” Stephen King said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” He’s also been called one of the best songwriters that you’ve never heard of. With his dark cynicism, his is NOT music for shiny, happy people but his songs are thought provoking and surprisingly really rock. He is a master with words and has so many great albums between his 1989 debut and 2021’s The Horses and The Hounds. The titles of his albums show his warped sense of humor, like Where’d You Hide The Body, which contains a great song, “Levelland.” 2014’s Complicated Game contains the gems “You Got To Me” and “These Things I’ve Come To Know.” It Had to Happen contains the superb “No More Buffalo.” On 2002’s, Saint Mary of The Woods album, his jealousy song, “Red Dress,” has the biting lyrics, ”Yes, I’m drunk but damn you’re ugly….tomorrow morning I’ll be sober, you’ll be just as ugly still. Where’d you get that red dress?” He just doesn’t know how to make a bad album. His personal favorite song off Saint Mary Of The Woods is “Out Here In The Middle.” There are also two excellent live albums to check out: 2004’s Live in Aught-Three and 2009’s Live in Europe.

Another apple not falling far from the tree is James’ son, Curtis McMurtry, who is also an Austin musician and has played on James’ albums. He has his own brand of apocalyptic indie folk influenced by musicians Fiona Apple and Tom Waits. His latest album, Toothless Messiah, is out on bandcamp.com. It is also Americana but quite different from his dad’s music, with a focus on Appalachian instrumentation. One thing is for certain…there is no lack of genuine talent in the McMurtry family.

Share It!