James McMurtry Rethinks ‘Road Dog’ Identity, But the Storytelling Stays
Photo by Mary Keating-Bruton
There is a moment on James McMurtry’s new album, The Horses and the Hounds, where he admits what seems to be an autobiographical truth: “There’s more in the mirror than there is up ahead.” In his 59 years on this earth, McMurtry has been playing music for 33; The Horses and the Hounds, out this Friday, marks his 10th LP in those three-plus decades. While he no doubt has plenty of road in front of him, the introspective reality found in that simple, yet profound lyric on “If It Don’t Bleed” rings true for the songwriter.
Though, it’s not a reality he ever considers.
“I don’t care about that,” McMurtry says over the phone. “Why think about it? You still have to get up and get through the day.” That freedom from worry about what’s behind or ahead or what others think has marked McMurtry’s songwriting since his debut record, 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland, and it continues to shape him as one of music’s most thoughtful, poignant lyricists, one Jason Isbell once described as his hero and a “master” of language.
“I work from a scrap pile,” McMurtry explains. “I have decades’ worth of lyrics on my computer and I just scroll through them and see what I want to finish. Every now and then, I’ll find one verse or two verses that I originally thought would be two separate songs that fit together and, sometimes, they’ll make a song.”
Besides being a master songwriter — an accolade McMurtry himself never embraces — he recognizes that his commitment to touring also has been core to who he is as an artist. But with a global pandemic that halted and continues to affect tours across the world, not to mention more candles being driven into his birthday cake each year, McMurtry admits that commitment might have to evolve.
“My identity used to be ‘road dog and proud of it,’ but maybe I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t need an identity,” he says. “I don’t think about it, but I think everybody else wants to think about identity.”
City of Angels
A year before COVID-19 changed everything in March 2020, McMurtry announced his signing with New West Records for his next album. McMurtry enlisted longtime friend Ross Hogarth, who first crossed paths with McMurtry as the engineer of Too Long in the Wasteland, as producer, and they began to prepare to record. Knowing that McMurtry wanted to record in Los Angeles, Hogarth called up Jackson Browne — who he refers to as his older brother — to see if they could get a few days in his private studio, Groove Masters.
“Browne was in the middle of recording [his album Downhill From Everywhere, released in July], but he actually paused for us,” Hogarth explains. Though he put his own schedule on hold, Browne still found himself around the studio. As Hogarth recalls, “He’d come in and want to hear what we were doing and bless the songs. That was killer.”
Browne’s blessing was an added bonus to what McMurtry was hoping to experience in Los Angeles. “There’s just something about L.A.,” he says. “That vibe. I’ve never recorded in L.A. before, but Ross has actually mixed two of my records there, Candyland and Saint Mary of the Woods.”
With Hogarth as producer, the third collaborator who joined the mix was another longtime friend, guitarist David Grissom. “He’s one of our best friends, and from the inception of me producing, I wanted to bring him in,” Hogarth says. “James was all about that, too.”
As they started to record, it became clear that Grissom would handle the guitar work on the album, freeing up McMurtry to focus on writing and singing.
“I barely played on this record,” McMurtry says. “I played on three songs; I did a little two-note acoustic guitar hook on “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call,” I did the acoustic on “Canola Fields,” and then the solo on “Vaquero.” When we tried tracking as a four-piece, I was just slowing everybody down. You have to keep the session moving, so if your guitar is slowing things down, you just have to put it down and sing and lead the session.”
McMurtry’s humility not only opened up Grissom to fill the album with his work, but it also gave Hogarth the freedom to bring in some other friends, like Charlie Sexton and Harry Smith, to add “nice, tasty colors” to the songs. The end result is one of the best records McMurtry has ever made, and the best he’s ever sounded.
“He had more confidence than he’s ever had and I think it really shows up in the vocals,” Hogarth says. “Not only is James a great storyteller, but he really is a one-of-a-kind singer.”
That’s an accolade McMurtry doesn’t mind embracing.
“Ross will get stuff out of you that you didn’t know was there. He got the best vocal performance from me that anybody ever has.”
Fires and Pandemics
Once the record was tracked, McMurtry and Hogarth started to juggle their schedules to try and knock out all the needed overdubs, which took much of the fall of 2019. During that time, before any virus, McMurtry contended with the wildfires in Los Angeles; his motel was in the heart of the fire zone and he couldn’t see 20 feet in front of him. A few months later, in the early spring of 2020, when they had almost all of the keyboards wrapped up, Hogarth was planning on bringing in Benmont Tench to add some organ. Then everything shut down.
“That complicated matters, especially with the Hammond B3 [organ],” McMurtry remembers. “I recorded Bukka Allen here in Dripping Springs, Texas, and I had to run that session. I don’t know how to deal with the organ, but I think we got some good stuff.”
Other tracks began to get emailed back and forth and the record was finally completed and mixed, but with the pandemic, there was no realistic release in sight. Though COVID-19 presented unique challenges, McMurtry was no stranger to sitting with a completed record for a little longer than expected. “Thirty years ago,” he recalls, “there was no release date until it actually happened. Candyland was ready to go in 1990 and it came out in 1992.”
Pausing to think about the length of time it took to record The Horses and the Hounds, McMurtry laughs. “I think I started tracking that record after the point at which I was supposed to have it turned in,” he says. “New West is a gracious group of people to work with.”
Though McMurtry spends little time worrying about his identity, it’s clear that he will forever be celebrated as an inimitable songwriter. Whether he’s a “road dog” or, in the pandemic era, a YouTube livestreamer, it’s his writing that sets him apart from nearly everyone around him, and that gift reaches new heights on The Horses and the Hounds.
The instant-classic “Decent Man” stands out as a flawless Western tale of struggle, murder, and regret, with the haunting chorus, “My fields are empty now / My ground won’t take the plow / It’s washed down to gravel and stones / It’s only good for burying bones”; “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” uses the trivial image of losing glasses to focus on heartache; and “Operation Never Mind” does surgery on America’s obsession with money and war, taking explicit aim at Kellogg Brown & Root and their military contracts: “A KBR man cooks a T-bone / A soldier’s choking down an MRE.”
But it’s “Jackie,” a slower narrative about a hardworking woman who is doing all she can to survive, that will forever exist as one of McMurtry’s perfect pieces of art, standing in the lineage of timeless tracks like “Rachel’s Song,” “No More Buffalo,” and “Just Us Kids.”
“She jackknifed on black ice with an oversized load,” McMurtry sings, “There’s a white cross in the borrow ditch where she went off the road / She wasn’t going that fast, the responders all say / How it ended that bad, we can wonder all day.”
“I’ve been trying to kill off the ‘horse woman’ in my songs,” McMurtry says with a slight chuckle when he thinks about “Jackie,” whose title character spends her free time “green breaking horses.” “She probably won’t stay down. She’ll be back at some point.”
From the release of the first track, “Canola Fields,” in June, it was clear that McMurtry was reaching for — and hitting — a pinnacle on The Horses and the Hounds. Ten tracks of stories and memories come together for an unforgettable record, one that Hogarth and McMurtry are both proud of, and one that someone else has become quite fond of, too.
“When I was done mixing it, I sent the album to Jackson Browne, kind of under the radar,” Hogarth confesses. “He wrote me back: ‘This James McMurtry album is really great. It blew me away. He is so good. It’s really inspiring to hear someone with this command of language.’”