James McMurtry Remembers His Movie Days in Black Lake
By Bill Nevins, Contributing Writer
James McMurtry doesn’t pull his punches. He’s a gentle guy, but when he aims to hit human failings and hypocrisy, he strikes damned hard, often with wit and sardonic humor. He’s skewered abusive mercenaries in “Operation Never Mind” and looked cooly at a regretful murderer in “Decent Man”, two songs on his new album, “The Horses and the Hounds”, which he performed live at his recent show this July in Santa Fe.
McMurtry writes from his observations as he travels the USA and Canada with what he describes as “a pretty good bar band”, the James McMurtry Band (formerly known as James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards) on what has become an almost-endless tour over the past three decades or so. He writes about what he sees and hears. “I don’t write for causes,” McMurtry tells this reporter in a late June phone interview – while cooking beans on the temperamental stove-burner of his Texas home.
Decidedly liberal but no tub-thumper, McMurtry has devoted audiences, who clearly are happy to get what they see and hear--long graying hair, gruff conversational drawl and all. “I’ve got right-wing fans, too, you know,” he tells us. One suspects those conservative fans accept McMurtry’s honest right- to- differ with them and are attracted to his music as much by its musical as by its lyrical content. (His song, “State of the Union” begins, “My brother’s a fascist/Lives in Palacios” – How can you not like that rhyme?)
Those lyrics are McMurtry’s strong suit, highly praised by novelist Stephen King, songwriter Jason Isbell and legions of devoted fans who, like myself, often travel far to see and hear him in concert.
Asked his impressions as a traveling performer of the present state of the USA, McMurtry laughs, “It’s bat-shit crazy!” He then comments that his observation is that “everything’s falling apart, at least in the middle of the country. There’s an extreme lack of give-a-f__ out there. I don’t know what people are thinking. We have been getting good audiences, though, and people seem to be tipping the bar staff pretty well. My partner is a long-time bartender and I always try to remind people to tip the working staff at our venues.”
He’s a largely-self-taught master of electric and acoustic guitars, especially the Telecaster, the Red Rocker and the Gibson twelve-string, each of which he learned “on the job”. His long-time, seasoned touring band is top-shelf, up to the highest Austin standards (which are among the highest musical standards in the world): Tim Holt on guitar and accordion, Darren Hess on drums and Cornbread on bass. Cornbread, (who seems to have no alias or last name), hails from Louisiana and, as he did at the July 6 Santa Fe concert we attended, brings a smiling face to McMurtry’s live shows, in contrast to McMurtry’s typically dour, squinting stare.
The McMurtry band’s oft- lilting beat is fiercely compulsive. You dance at a James McMurtry show, if you’ve got the ability to do so, even if you dance in your seat. You’ve got no choice. And while you dance, you hear stories like “Copper Canteen”, which 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 when touring in northern Wisconsin and New England and contemplating how folks get through the long winters there. “Deer hunting and ice fishing, mostly. I first learned the term ‘bridge-tender’ up there – the guy who raises and lowers the draw-bridges”, he adds. Likewise, he first learned of Canola fields when touring in Alberta, Canada, and brought that term into the stunning opening song on The Horses and The Hounds.
Texas-born, McMurtry grew up in Virginia and attended college in Arizona before settling in Austin, where he holds court as a regular club-performer when not on the road. This February, he moved to Lockhart, Texas, some thirty miles south of Austin. During the recent pandemic, when touring became impossible, he began a semi-weekly series of popular online solo performances from his home studio which continue to this day. James is the son of the late author/screen writer Larry McMurtry, whose “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show” are among many famed titles on both bookshelves and film screens.
James says he fondly remembers his time acting as a shy young cowboy in the tv movie version of “Lonesome Dove”, and the scenes which were filmed in Black Lake, NM. “We had a great time riding around on horses in that open range there, and at night we would stop into that old road house on the corner of routes 434 and 120. Good memories!”
When asked if he considers himself a novelist or story-author working in music, McMurtry scoffs, “No, I’m a song-writer. 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 kind of work backwards to develop the characters and their stories.”
Sometimes his story-songs are couched in the voice of an assumed persona or character, as in “Rita’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/ . . . If anyone can claim they’re all right/So can I”
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” (wherein he celebrates a beloved deceased friend) seem closest to personal statements, though the wry chorus of “Ft. Walton Wake Up Call”:“I keep losing my glasses” may also suggest how the 60-year old McMurtry is coping with advancing age. He used to scribble lyrics on bar napkins, but now he taps them out on his cell phone while traveling for future shaping into songs. He experienced a near-disaster recently when a lap top containing new lyrics fell off his car’s roof and was lost. However, James tells me that he can recall most of the lyrics from memory, though “some are lost forever.” He does allow that some new songs are “coming together”, although no plans for the next album are confirmed. “We usually start recording when the tour winds down.”
Asked what the “The Horses and the Hounds” of his new album’s title song signify (perhaps encroaching mortality?), McMurtry says, “Internal demons chasing you. Not necessarily death.”
We leave it at that and thank him for the interview. He’ll be back on the road soon, traveling by car to Santa Fe and then on to Telluride Colorado for a two-day festival gig, and then McMurtry and his band, on their way home, will stop for a show in Roswell, New Mexico.
“I guess we’ll be playing for the space aliens there,” he quips.
We hope that James will play in the Enchanted Circle sometime in the near future, perhaps next year.
“Sure, we would love to do that. We have had good times playing in Red River and Taos and we remember the good times making that movie in Black Lake! We’d love to come back to your area again,” says James.
McMurtry’s official webpage is: www.JamesMcMurtry.com