For more than three decades, James McMurtry has been writing songs with the literary detail, directness and intrigue of a master novelist. Examine any lyric — like this one from “Decent Man,” a standout track from his 2021 album “The Horses and the Hounds” — for proof.
“I slipped through the kitchen door, saddled the swingback mule; hugged her and rocked on board, left like a drunk fool.
In this case, McMurtry had help. The song, begun years earlier and ultimately forgotten by its composer, was inspired by a short story by famed Kentucky author Wendell Berry. But the imagery and intent are all McMurtry’s and read like a work that has been patiently and precisely crafted before being offered to the public.
A Lexington audience who will have the chance to see McMurtry in person on July 31 in concert at The Burl for the first time since the COVID pandemic.
But the rock and folk singer, who headlined Moonshiners Ball 2018, the weekend-long American bluegrass festival that will take place again in October, was also inspired by another source: the time limit.
“My goal is to finish enough songs in time to make the record,” McMurtry said. “A lot of these things were finished at the motel the day before the session. Some of them were written quite quickly and just in the months leading up to the session.
“I had taken all of our gear to LA for this recording session. The band was supposed to fly the next day. So I ended up at this pizzeria next to the Roadway Inn in Culver City. They were playing all the most obnoxious hits 70s and 80s on the jukebox. I was about to get up, walk out and leave a really good meal because the music was just awful. Then all of a sudden I hear Freddie Mercury singing” Mom, you just killed a man…” and it reminded me of that song I started 10 years before. So I had to go back to the hotel and dig that out of the safe to finish it.
So isn’t McMurtry the kind of writer who plans his music entirely well before a recording session?
“Well, there’s a lot going on with a session looming. It’s your deadline. Years ago I wrote this line about doing your homework on the school bus (to “Where’s Johnny,” a song from his 1992 second album “Candyland”), but that’s just how I do. I start songs on the road, but rarely finish them until there’s a session booked.
In the late ’80s, Indiana rocker John Mellencamp, who signed on to produce McMurtry’s 1989 debut album, ‘Too Long in the Wasteland’, drew attention to such a keen, human and sometimes dark storytelling. Curiously, two key contributors to that record (and to “Candyland”) – engineer-turned-producer Ross Hogarth and guitarist David Grissom – came back into play on “The Horses and the Hounds.” Grissom is a Louisville native who moved to Austin in 1983 and played for several years with Texas rocker Joe Ely before joining Mellencamp’s band in 1991.
“When I met Ross he was an engineer working for Mellencamp,” McMurtry said. “He recorded and mixed my first two records. Then I brought him in to mix the first record I produced, “Saint Mary of the Woods” (in 2002). Over time he became a producer, but he was always in tune with the times and technology. He’s just a lot more tech-savvy than I’ve ever been. I got to the point where I felt like I was repeating myself in terms of recording. I had used all the tricks I had learned from Mellencamp. The thing is, Ross likes to work really fast. It moves so fast I can’t tell what it’s doing, so I don’t know if I’ve learned much about making records.
“When John brought David in for the ‘Wasteland’ record, I thought, ‘Great. He’s the guy who plays with Ely. So I was already a fan.
The Los Angeles recording sessions for “The Horses and the Hounds” went quickly until he hit a surprise roadblock – the COVID-19 lockdown. The pandemic delayed the release of the album by almost a year.
“Well, it delayed the completion of the record, actually. We tracked it before COVID, but we were still doing keyboard overdubs when the lockdown happened. We had a session booked in Los Angeles two weeks before all of California shut down so we ended up looking at various players from across the country We have three B3 (organ) players on the record One of them was emailing tracks from elsewhere You can do it now, but it takes a while because you can’t be in the room with the guy saying, “Try this, try that. You spend a lot of time sending things back and forth. meaning to try to get the ideas across.
COVID, of course, also wiped out McMurtry’s ability to tour. Like many artists, from major-label stalwarts to independent artists, he’s turned to online streaming shows from his home outside of Austin.
“I was doing two a week for a while there. I did Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. I learned that from a concert promoter, I think it was in Vermont. He realized that Sunday at 1 p.m. is really good because there are Europeans who are still awake and Californians who are just getting up. Fitzgerald’s in Chicago also did a regular live stream and they told me that Wednesdays at 8 p.m. the center was always good enough for them. In the beginning, people tipped really well. I guess the stimulus money and unemployment and stuff like that helped. It ran out in the fall and the tips went down, but they were still pretty good. Our overhead was low. I was not traveling. I didn’t have to worry about accommodation, fuel and salaries.
So did McMurtry gain a new appreciation for touring once lockdown restrictions eased?
“No. I didn’t miss it that badly. When we finally got out, I was three years older than me. The road beats me a little more than before.
Through it all — and, in the case of COVID, despite it — McMurtry’s gift of literary gab shines brightly. You experience it throughout “The Horses and the Hounds” in the prophetic tale of mortality “If It Don’t Bleed,” the sobering military snapshot “Operation Never Mind,” and the social saga but relatively whimsical “Ft. Walton’s Awakening.
One could sense such a sensitivity to storytelling in the family, especially since the songwriter’s father was acclaimed Lone Star author and screenwriter Larry McMurtry. Such an assessment, son James said, is misleading.
“There is a writer in my career. People are still talking about it, but there are no writers in Larry’s past. Larry’s people were farmers and ranchers. They barely read. When they did, they weren’t reading for fun, they were reading for information. So I don’t know if the genetic argument is entirely valid.
With Carl Hayes
When: 8 p.m. July 31
Where: The Bramble, 375 Thompson Road.
Tickets: $30 to theburlky.com
This story was originally published July 27, 2022 06:00.