James McMurtry sets character studies to music

Jul. 1—Singer-songwriter and lauded storyteller James McMurtry doesn't have to look far for inspiration.

In fact, it's generally just beyond his 15-seat touring van's windows.

McMurtry, who performs Wednesday, July 6, at Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, was inspired to write the opening track on his latest album after puzzling over distinctively colored fields while on tour in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

"That chartreuse blossom. I don't know why we never stopped and asked, 'What is that stuff?'" the Texan says, jokingly adding, "Probably because we're Americans."

The track, "Canola Fields," opens with the line, "I was thinking 'bout you, crossing southern Alberta; canola fields on a July day." In typical McMurtry fashion, the song covers large distances both physical and topical, with twangy reflections on romance and adventure dotted with references to locales such as Brooklyn, New York, ("before it went hipster"), and San Jose and Santa Cruz, California.

The 60-year-old McMurtry has storytelling in his blood; his father is Western lit legend Larry McMurtry, famed for works such as Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment. The senior McMurtry's writing focused on the Old West and Texas, themes that also show up in his son's work. He died in March 2021.

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James McMurtry said he has visited Santa Fe numerous times during a career that spans more than three decades and 11 studio albums. In fact, he performed here fall of 2021, he said, at El Rey Court.

McMurtry is touring in support of his 2021 long-player The Horses and the Hounds, which Rolling Stone praised as "10 story-songs set to a slightly more polished, Tom Petty-inspired, West Coast iteration of the rootsy, dusty palette McMurtry typically works in."

McMurtry said he writes albums when it's time to tour, but he's always contemplating possible subject matter.

"The whole song of 'Choctaw Bingo' was a writing exercise, trying to stuff as many details of what I'd seen through the windshield from southeast Oklahoma into one song," he said. McMurtry wastes no time setting a mood in the tune, opening with the line, "Strap them kids in, give 'em a lil' bit of vodka / in a Cherry Coke, we're goin' to Oklahoma"

Choctaw Bingo is the closing track on McMurtry's 2002 album Saint Mary of the Woods. It was covered three years later by singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, a fellow Texan who lived in Taos County for several years after graduating high school.

Many of McMurtry's highly literate tunes are character studies. Harsh realities, not heroism, take center stage. Not unlike his storyteller father.

"I just get lines and melodies and start envisioning a character who would have said that line and see if there's a story they'd fit into," he says.

McMurtry said people haven't changed much across his decades of performing — with one unfortunate exception.

"The only thing that has changed in recent years is it's become totally OK to be ugly, mean," he said.

McMurtry and three other musicians tour in a van for about 300 miles north to Telluride, Colorado, for performances the two nights following the Santa Fe visit. Then they'll backtrack to Roswell for a performance July 9.

Why an uncommon concert stop like Roswell? Because they were invited.

"Destinations are decided by money," the Texas-based musician says. "Somebody offers you good money, and you try to get there and get back without losing it."

He says he thinks about his health and safety on the road. "I'm a little worried, 'cause there's still a pandemic going on. ... I'm vaccinated and double boosted, but are [audience members]?"

The Horses and the Hounds was scheduled for release in 2020, then was delayed for obvious reasons.

"I got real comfortable with isolation," McMurtry said of life amid the pandemic. "I was doing two livestreams a week. People tipped pretty well. There were six guitars, all tuned and capo'd and ready to go.

"I didn't mind that. I don't mind coming back, either."