For over three decades, James McMurtry has been penning songs with the literary detail, candor and intrigue of a master novelist. Examine any lyric – like this one from “Decent Man,” a standout tune from his 2021 album “The Horses and the Hounds” - for evidence.
“I slipped out the kitchen door, saddled up the sway backed mule; cinched her tight and swung on board, rode off like a drunken fool.”
In this case, McMurtry had some help. The song, begun years earlier and eventually forgotten by its composer, was inspired by a short story from famed Kentucky author Wendell Berry. But the imagery and intent are all McMurtry’s and read like a work that was patiently and precisely designed before being offered to the public.
A Lexington public that will get a 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 the 2018 Moonshiners Ball, the weekend-long Americana and bluegrass festival that will again take place in October, also drew inspiration from another source – deadlines.
“My whole goal is to finish enough songs in time to make the record,” McMurtry said. “A lot of these things were finished in the motel the night before the session. Some of them were written pretty quick and just in the months leading up to the session.
“I had driven all our gear out to L.A. for this recording session. The band was supposed to fly in the next day. So I wound up in this pizza place next to the Roadway Inn in Culver City. They were playing all of the most obnoxious hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the jukebox. I was just about to get up, walk out and leave a perfectly good meal because the music was just awful. Then suddenly I hear Freddie Mercury singing, ‘Mama, 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 vault to finish it.”
So McMurtry isn’t the kind of writer who fully plans out his music long ahead of a recording session?
“Well, a lot happens with a session looming. That’s your deadline. Years ago, I wrote that line about doing your homework on the school bus (for “Where’s Johnny,” a song from his 1992 sophomore album “Candyland”), but that’s just kind of how I do it. I’ll start songs on the road but I rarely finish them until there’s a session booked.”
Such a keen, human and sometimes unapologetically dark sense of storytelling came to the attention in the late ‘80s of Indiana rocker John Mellencamp, who signed on to produce McMurtry’s 1989 debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland.” Curiously, two key contributors to that record (and “Candyland”) – engineer-turned-producer Ross Hogarth and guitarist David Grissom - came into play again on “The Horses and the Hounds.” Grissom is a Louisville native who moved to Austin in 1983 and played for several years with Texas roadhouse 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 that I produced, “Saint Mary of the Woods” (in 2002). Over time, he became a producer, but he was always up with the times and the technology. He’s just a lot more tech savvy than I ever was. I got to the point where I felt I was repeating myself recording-wise. I had used up all of the tricks I learned from Mellencamp. The thing is, Ross likes to work real fast. He moves so fast I can’t tell what he’s doing, so I don’t know that I learned that much about making records.
“When John brought David in for the ‘Wasteland’ record, I thought, ‘Great. That’s the guy who plays with Ely.’ So I was already a fan.”
Los Angeles recording sessions for “The Horses and the Hounds” proceeded briskly until it hit a surprise roadblock – the COVID-19 lockdown. The pandemic delayed the album’s release by nearly a year.
“Well, it delayed the completion of the record, actually. We tracked it before COVID, but we were still doing keyboard overdubs when lockdown happened. We had a session booked in L.A. two weeks before all of California shut down, so we wound up looking at various players from around the country. We have three B3 (organ) players on the record. One of them was emailing tracks in from somewhere else. You can do that now, but it takes awhile because you can’t be in the room with the guy saying, ‘Try this, try that.’ You spend a lot of time sending stuff back and forth trying to get the ideas across.”
COVID, of course, also wiped out McMurtry’s ability to tour. Like many artists, from major label mainstays to independent acts, he turned to online streaming shows from his home outside of Austin.
“I was doing two a week for a while there. I would do Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. I learned that from a concert promoter, I think it was in Vermont. He figured out that Sunday at 1 p.m. was really good because you get the Europeans that are still awake and the Californians that are just getting up. Fitzgerald’s in Chicago was also doing a regular livestream thing and they told me Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central was always pretty good for them. Early on, people tipped really well. I guess stimulus money and unemployment, stuff like that, helped. That ran out in the fall and tips fell off, but they were still pretty good. Our overhead was low. I wasn’t traveling. Didn’t have to worry about lodging, fuel and salaries.”
So did McMurtry gain a new appreciation for touring once lockdown restrictions eased?
“No. I didn’t miss it that bad. When we finally got back out, I was three years older than I had been. The road beats me up a little worse than it used to.”
Through it all – and, in the case of COVID, in spite of it – McMurtry’s gift of literary gab glows brilliantly. You experience it throughout “The Horses and the Hounds” in the prophetic mortality tale “If It Don’t Bleed,” the sobering military snapshot “Operation Never Mind” and the worldly but comparatively whimsical saga “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.”
One might sense such storytelling sensibility runs in the family, especially since the songwriter’s father was acclaimed Lone Star author and screenwriter Larry McMurtry. Such an assessment, said son James, is misleading.
“There’s one writer in my background. People are always bringing that up, but there are no writers in Larry’s background. Larry’s people were farmers and stockmen. They barely even read. When they did, they didn’t read for pleasure, they read for information. So I don’t know if the genetic argument is all that valid.”
With Hayes Carll
When: 8 p.m. July 31
Where: The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.
Tickets: $30 at theburlky.com