James McMurtry — The Horses and the Hounds
If an artist sticks around long enough, he or she will eventually have a chance to see that the blacktop on life’s highway is starting to break up a bit, and maybe the dusty, dirty end of the road is beginning to come into view. It’s not about mortality, really, but just figuring out one’s place in whatever very finite amount of life is left. Some writers…don’t deal with this so well (you’ll often find them lashing out at the “younger generations” of musicians on social media). Others find it oddly comforting. Legendary songwriter James McMurtry’s new album, The Horses and the Hounds, puts him firmly in the latter camp – looking back, sure, but not unhappy with where he finds himself now.
The breadth of McMurtry’s storytelling can be found encapsulated in the album’s first track. “Canola Fields,” in just under five minutes, covers both a not-quite relationship that spans more than three decades, plus the details of the two lives around it. The mid-tempo country rocker flashes back to youthful misadventures – “That white knuckle ride back from Santa Cruz” – and stabs at adulthood – “kids and careers and a vague sense of order.” But, in the autumn of his own life, while driving past harvested fields where only ”brown rusty contour lines” remain, he can look back at the brief moment where time stopped passing, “Cashing in on a thirty-year crush/You can’t be young and do that.” Delivered in McMurtry’s unruffled drawl and bulleted by David Grissom’s punchy acoustic solo, it’s a story both hopeful and wistful, with a character both satisfied with his memories and looking to have maybe another moment or two before life winds down. And it’s as good as storytelling gets.
McMurtry addresses aging and acceptance a bit more directly on the next track, “If It Don’t Bleed,” A little more electrified than its predecessor (and featuring former Heartbreaker Stan Lynch on percussion), the protagonist here is doing…OK, but insists on moving forward – “Give it all you got/While you still got a more or less functional body and mind.” And the guy’s got room for everyone – “I don’t mind if you don’t look like me/I can share my bread and wine” (again, McMurtry doesn’t use his “elder statesman” status to take gratuitous potshots at the kids). The generally upbeat tune is lent extra bounce by electric guitar work from Grissom and slide player Harry Smith.
Overall, in fact, The Horses and the Hounds, aside from its sublime storytelling, is eminently listenable. If all you’re looking for is an in-the-car-and-at-the-bar record, it’s here for the taking – guitars, just the right amount of accordion sprinkled in (on “Vaquero,” a tribute to late “Lonesome Dove” screenwriter Bill Wittliff), and a general vibe which makes it perfect driving down a dirt road just a little too fast. But it’s the storytelling that makes the record truly special. “Operation Never Mind” is an unfortunately timely missive about the disposability of our service members – “The country boys will do the fighting/Now that fighting’s all a country boy can do.” “What’s The Matter” is a musician-on-the-road song with a twist: the largely untold perspective from the ones left behind – “I get to travel and you gotta stay home/You’re gettin’ tired of raising them kids alone” – and the conflict inherent when one half is itinerant and the other is not allowed to be. And “Blackberry Winter,” with its fragments of images of a dissolving relationship – “The landlady won’t like the stains on the rugs and the curtains/That’s just wear and tear such as happens in life” – finds the singer moving on, yet again. Neither age nor letting go seem to rattle McMurtry. Rather, he’s interested in what’s on the road after the blacktop ends.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Canola Fields” – beautifully written and with a soaring chorus that anyone can sing along to.
The Horses and the Hounds was produced and mixed by Ross Hogarth, recorded by Hogarth, Pat Manske and Joseph Holguin and mastered by Richard Dodd. All songs were written by James McMurtry, with co-writing credits going to David Grissom, Daren Hess, Cornbread and Hogarth. Additional musicians on the album include Grissom (electric and acoustic guitars, mando guitar), Hess (drums), Sean Hurley (bass guitar), Kenny Aronoff (percussion), Stan Lynch (percussion), Charlie Sexton (high strung guitar, bouzouki, mando guitar), Bukka Allen (organ, accordion, keys), Red Young (organ), Loren Gold (organ, piano), Stephen Barber (piano, Wurlitzer), Jon Gilutin (piano, keys), Harry Smith (slide guitar, mandolin, banjo), John McFee (banjo), Cameron Stone (cello) and Randy Garibay, Jr., Betty Soo, Akina Adderly and Harmoni Kelley (harmony and background vocals).
Go here to order The Horses and the Hounds (out August 20): https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/james-mcmurtry-the-horses-and-the-hounds
Check out tour dates here: https://www.highroadtouring.com/artists/james-mcmurtry/itinerary/