From disillusionment to economic anxiety, the stories of people living on the margins of society are long the subject of James McMurtry's songs. That might be why his latest album, “The Horses and the Hounds,” resonates so deeply as America emerges from the pandemic to hopefully better days.
The album was released this past August and McMurtry’s national tour, delayed from its original January start by the omicron surge, swings through New England for two dates next week, June 21 at Maine's Portland House of Music and closer to home June 22 at Brighton Music Hall.
McMurtry’s songs are rightfully lauded for their strong sense of characters and places, presented with nuance and sympathy, and keen insight derived from heart-tugging details. Of course, that kind of writing prowess is in his blood. His father was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, author of “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove” and many other immortal works, several of which became unforgettable movies too. (Larry died in March 2021 at 84.)
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Superb songwriting is timeless, but even McMurtry probably never figured his 2005 tune “We Can’t Make It Here” would resonate so strongly 17 years later. And there is still much to appreciate from his early songs about lives and careers upended by changing times and harsh realities, like “Too Long in the Wasteland,” “Levelland” and “Choctaw Bingo.”
Last year’s record was also striking for its impact and energy. McMurtry enlisted Russ Hogarth to produce the album and recorded most of it before the pandemic shutdown in Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica studio.
"The Horses and the Hounds" turned out to be a record that rocks with the bar-band muscle of McMurtry’s best, but also frames the singer’s laconic vocal style in as warm a setting as possible. In the first single, “Canola Fields,” the singer is musing about a long-ago love, and the song sounds as intimate as a conversation and as infectiously vibrant as a roadhouse rocker. There are charming details – the girl drove a chartreuse VW Bug – as well as a memorable verse delivered casually: “In a way back corner of a downtown bus / We were hiding out under my hat / Cashing in on a 30-year crush / You can’t be young and do that …”
“The people we used are all rockers,” said McMurtry from his home south of Austin. “I had been producing my own records in Austin, but I am conscious of not repeating myself stylistically. I had worked with Russ a long time ago when he was Mellencamp’s engineer and (guitarist) David Grissom had worked on my first two records.”
The main sessions were done before the lockdowns hit in March 2020 but there was still mixing and overdubbing to do and Hogarth couldn’t travel because of eye problems. So, the final touches were applied remotely. As McMurtry noted, they would end up using three different organ players on the final record, with his Austin pal Bukka Allen the main one.
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McMurtry spent much of the lockdown performing streaming one-man shows on Facebook and YouTube from his home 30 miles south of Austin. He wrote a couple of songs during the pandemic, but said he didn’t find it a particularly inspiring time.
In a note sure to endear him to journalists, McMurtry collects snippets of songs, phrases or potential titles or anecdotes that might lead to a song. But he doesn’t actually begin to write seriously until faced with the deadline pressure of a looming recording session.
“I work from a scrap pile, of notes and lines I jotted down here and there,” McMurtry said. “I finished a few songs before the sessions. I will usually start songs on the road, with a phrase or something, but to finish them I need the incentive of a recording session coming up.”
One exception this time was “If It Don’t Bleed,” a sardonic look back at a man whose life has gone down some crooked roads, but still maintains a basic level of optimism.
“'If It Don’t Bleed’ came to me while touring, and was written in a matter of days,” said McMurtry. “I’d work on the verses going down the road, and we’d get to our hotel about 3 in the afternoon, and then have an hour or so before sound check. But usually, I don’t finish them like that.”
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The strength of McMurtry’s songwriting has always been his knack for portraying common working people and their struggles, and managing to not just treat them with respect, but also make larger points about their situation and how we treat each other.
“Jackie” is a standout on the new album, a tale of a female truck driver with a horse farm to support, who takes on a dangerous winter run, which ends tragically. “Operation Never Mind” depicts Iraq veterans battling their demons and being ignored upon returning home. “Decent Man" is about a fellow who kills his best friend, and can’t really say why. McMurtry’s deadpan delivery and the buoyant rocking arrangements enhance the emotional impact.
But for a lighter mood, “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” is a rollicking misadventure where a man and his wife are having a comically nightmarish road trip and he’s lost his glasses, which he decides is his biggest problem.
"All fiction," McMurtry answers when asked if the songs are based on real people and his own experiences. “Although some characters are composites of people I’ve known or seen. And the writing itself doesn’t seem easier, you’ve got to work to get the right words to fall into the pocket. The actual mechanics of writing do not get easier.”
Bonnie Raitt, Righteous Brothers
If you’re out on the music front this weekend, Plymouth is a good place to be. Memorial Hall is hopping all weekend, with country-rockers The Mavericks doing their special all-Spanish show on Friday; classic soul with The Righteous Brothers on Saturday (Bill Medley still sounds terrific); and then the big blues show on Sunday, featuring Devon Allman, Samantha Fish and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Just up the street in Plymouth, The Spire Center hosts its annual BeatlesFest on Saturday night with the wonderfully named Walrus Gumboot, Scott Damgaard and local rockers Third Left. Friday night, Leader Bank Pavilion in Boston welcomes the extraordinary double-bill of Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams.
Zip over to Zappa
The Narrows Center in Fall River has The Zappa Band on June 24. That’s a sextet that includes four musicians who played with Frank Zappa in his heyday, and the show features some of his best and most memorable tunes.
See James McMurtry in Boston
When: 8 p.m. June 22
Where: Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave., Boston
Info: 617-208-8786 or crossroadspresents.com
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Singer-songwriter James McMurtry returns to Boston with horses hounds