Singer/songwriter James McMurtry talks California connections ahead of Awe Bar show

James McMurtry will perform Oct. 11 at Awe Bar in Yucca Valley.
James McMurtry will perform Oct. 11 at Awe Bar in Yucca Valley.
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Texan James McMurtry is no stranger to Southern California. So after recording his most recent album at Jackson Browne’s Groovemaster’s in Santa Monica, it was only natural for the singer/songwriter to include some tour stops in the Golden State.

Said record, "The Horses and the Hounds," was released last year to great fanfare. McMurtry's debut album on genre-defining Americana label New West Records earned him a spot on Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums of 2021, the Houston Chronicle's Best Rock and Jazz Albums of 2021 and Taste of County's 11 Best Country Albums of 2021.

In this conversation with McMurtry ahead of his Oct. 11 show at Awe Bar in Yucca Valley, he discussed everything from his previous Pappy and Harriet's shows to how the 2019 Getty Fire in Los Angeles affected his voice.

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Desert Sun: What is that process like, getting back in the headspace to record an album after seven years have passed?

James McMurtry: It used to be that we we would tour to support record sales. Now it's the other way around. I don't think we have to put a record out every 18 months like they used to think they had to until seats start start emptying out and then go back and do the homework and go back in the studio. We tracked this record in 2019 and were hoping to have it out in 2020. We nearly had all overdubs done and then California locked down and we didn't record out there anymore. We had to do keyboards kind of piecemeal and in different locations. Some players were emailing the tracks in which, fortunately, you can do now, but yeah, it's been a little longer because of COVID.

You first worked with producer Ross Hogarth 30 years ago, when he was a recording engineer for John Mellencamp, then he recorded your first two albums and mixed your first self-produced album, "Saint Mary of the Woods." What was it like reuniting with Hogarth for this album?

It's different because we're all older. So we're sort of more like ourselves than we were. We don't necessarily have the same harmonic plan that we used to, but we do have a drive to get it done. I wanted to work with Ross in Los Angeles because I had never recorded there before. And Ross produced when I worked with Mellencamp. I just wanted to see what he would do, and I like LA. I like being here, so I didn't really have ideas beyond that. It was just time to make the record and see what Ross can do.

How was recording in Los Angeles different?

Well, I think we tracked for like two weeks. I don't really know how much time we spent overall, but I had to go out there to do final vocals twice because the first time I shredded my voice because of the wildfire smoke. I didn't realize that that haze hanging over the valley wasn't just regular valley haze, it was the Getty Fire. It tore my voice up pretty bad. I think we could only use like one vocal from that whole week, we had to go back in December and redo the whole thing. I was right under that smoke and at night, you get that temperature inversion and that cold air brings the smoke right down into your hotel room.

James McMurtry's "The Horses and the Hounds" is his debut album on genre-defining Americana record label New West Records.
James McMurtry's "The Horses and the Hounds" is his debut album on genre-defining Americana record label New West Records.

I've seen the word "literary" used a great deal by music critics describing your music, likely because of your mother and father's occupations as an English teacher and novelist, respectively. Do you agree with that word choice, or what word would you use?

I don't really know if "literary" is a good term when it comes to songs. You know, [fellow Texan singer/songwriter] Steve Earle says songs are 'literature you can digest while driving,' and that's kind of accurate. Mostly, when I write songs, I write words meant to be sung. It's different from prose, different from poetry, which don't have to be sung or even spoken, but with songs, you have to write words that you can say and easily read. You can't have vowel sounds that choke you up. That's stuff I learned from voice training. I wasn't trying to be [Luciano] Pavarotti, I was just trying to get to where I didn't lose my voice that third show out on the road. So she taught me stuff which probably improved my songwriting more than my singing.

Tell me what you mean by the lessons improving your songwriting more than your singing.

I write songs that I can sing, I'm never going to be Rod Stewart. But I guess I did improve my range somewhat — the mechanics of it are better when I concentrate on breath. For a while, it was becoming second nature. But I do write better songs since I did that because songs are written for an instrument, which is your voice. The stuff that I wrote before I knew I was writing for these lips is not as good.

I noticed that you have a standing gig at The Continental Club in Austin for when you aren't on the road. I'm curious, why is it important to have that consistent show when you're not touring?

You don't get a soundcheck at The Continental Club, you just kind of throw your gear onstage and go with it. That toughens you up a little bit. It kind of makes the road a little easier.

Do you have some regulars in that crowd?

Austin's become such a tourist destination, so we do have our regulars, but we also have people there that don't know who's on stage and might not care. So it's a little tougher trying to win that crowd over, or getting them to shut up. But Wednesdays I play upstairs in the gallery solo. So that keeps both skill sets going.

What do you enjoy about performing in the High Desert?

I like the climate, but every once in a while you can run into some fire trouble. One time I was supposed to play outside at Pappy and Harriet's but they canceled it so we wouldn't be breathing in smoke. So I like it when it's not on fire.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: James McMurtry returns to the High Desert with Awe Bar show