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The Musical Stories of James McMurtry

The Musical Stories of James McMurtry

In the deep pantheon of classic Texan singer/songwriters, a tradition that includes such titans as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle, raw talent and rootsy integrity have always been essential. Those qualities also describe singer/songwriter James McMurtry. On The Horses and the Hounds, his first album in seven years and his debut on New West Records, McMurtry mines what has become, for him, familiar thematic territory: a workingman’s hard-won truths sketched out in evocative song-stories that rail against some of America’s most sacred cows.

As the son of Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Larry McMurtry, James has storytelling in his blood, and it’s easy to picture James’ imagery-rich stories set to prose instead of song. Compressed character sketches abound, with resonant tales of truckers, hunters, cowboy vaqueros, and barroom musicians. Like fiction writers, he gives breath to each imagined life with empathy, heart, and detailed precision. But, as James explained during a recent phone interview where he spoke from his home in Lockhart, Texas, he’s a songwriter at heart. 

“Writing prose is a chore for me,” he said. “I don’t enjoy it. I wanted to go into songwriting. Kris Kristofferson was the first artist I identified with as a songwriter. I hadn’t given any thought to where songs came from before that. I wanted to be Johnny Cash when I grew up.

“The second live gig I saw was Kristofferson, and the band seemed to be having such a good time up there, I thought, I want to do that. He wasn’t country. Kris was something else. He was his own category, and so was Willie Nelson. They put them in the country section because you got to sell stuff, but they don’t really fit. Neither do I.”

Kristofferson’s own Texan roots and poetic songwriting foretold McMurtry’s, as does the uneasy genre classification.  McMurtry resists the “alt-country” label.

“I found out early on it’s dangerous to wear a hat of any kind or they’ll stick you in the country section,” he said. “Instead, Americana should be called what it is—skinny, scruffy white guys with guitars.” 

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