When it comes to interviews, James McMurtry is a man of few words, which is just as well because as fans of his immersive songwriting, we much prefer that he use them to expand upon his impressive catalog of music. After a long wait – seven years to be exact – the celebrated storyteller has returned with his latest collection of songs, The Horses and the Hounds, his first with Nashville’s New West Records. Produced by Ross Hogarth, the album is available now.
I recently sat down with McMurtry to discuss the impact of musical mileage, an industry of change, and hunting down a certain equestrian woman in song.
Americana Highways: You have more than a dozen albums under your belt and 30 plus years on the road. Are there still firsts for you out there – things that you can experience that you wouldn’t be able to had you not taken this musical path?
James McMurtry: I’m sure there are. I won’t know until I see them.
AH: Was this album one of those “firsts” because of how the world is right now in terms of being able to promote an album?
JM: No, I didn’t think about that when I made it because I made this record before the pandemic. All the tracking and most of the overdubs anyway. We still had some keyboards left to do when California shut down, so we had to do that kind of piecemeal thing with various people in various places. Some of it was in-person and some tracks got emailed in as we do nowadays, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of how to promote it, I was just trying to make the record.
Americana Highways: And that’s an amazing thing, that albums were able to get finished at all during the shut down thanks to the digital world we live in. Had a pandemic happened 30 years ago, most records in production during that time would have just been left hanging in the air.
James McMurtry: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, can’t really do that with tape.
Americana Highways: I’m curious how your songwriter’s POV has changed since your first album Too Long in the Wasteland?
James McMurtry: It really hasn’t changed. I use the same method. I start with a couple of lines in a melody and just start building on it, and if it keeps me up at night, then I’ll probably finish the song. I do it one song at a time. One line at a time, basically. I don’t generally have a preset idea of what I’m trying to do.
Americana Highways: So does that mean the songs find you first and you kind of have to read between the lines to flesh them out?
James McMurtry: When I hear the first couple of lines in my head, I think, “Who said that?” And then I can develop a character and then maybe I can develop a story from the character.
Americana Highways: When looking back at Too Long in the Wasteland… does time bring more confidence?
James McMurtry: Well, yeah. I mean I’m a lot older so that changes who I am. I don’t know that the songs really got any better though. They just have different characters, different points of view. An older point of view, really.
Americana Highways: Do you ever go back and revisit old characters and see what they’re up to now?
James McMurtry: No. They morph into somebody else later on. I’ve been trying to kill off the equestrian woman for several records now, but she’ll probably come back.
Americana Highways: The Horses and the Hounds was released about a month ago. Creatively have you moved on from where you were when you put this one together and is it hard to do this part of the dance, the promotion aspect of it, when you are already on to something else?
James McMurtry: It kind of is, yeah. And I’m some sort of partway into the next batch of songs. That’s the thing my father (author Larry McMurtry) used to complain about, that he envied me because I got instant feedback on my work because I had to go out there and sing the songs, but I kind of sometimes envied him because he could write a book and just put it out there and forget about it. That’s why he hated adapting his own work for film, because he’d have to go back and read those books again. By the time he got finished writing it, he didn’t want to read them.
Americana Highways: The industry has changed so much since Too Long in the Wasteland. What is the biggest difference for you now in terms of putting an album out into the world?
James McMurtry: The business model has flipped on its head, which is actually good for me. When Wasteland was cut and released, the model was, you toured to promote record sales. And tours did not have to be profitable because you expected to promote enough, to generate enough sales that you got artist royalties to live on. I never sold near enough records to do that. My records cost too much to make and didn’t sell enough, but it did get me a foothold in the touring business. And over the years I learned to tour cheap so that I could actually profit from the road. Then Napster and Spotify came along and suddenly there were no artist royalties. Nobody’s selling that many records and you might as well make a living off the road. Suddenly everybody’s having to learn how to tour cheap and scrambling for dates and it made the competition a lot harder because there’s only so many venues. And when you double the amount of bands on the road you better have a good booking agent, which I do.
Americana Highways: Is the licensing songs to film and television still a part of the artist’s business model?
James McMurtry: Certainly. The licensing for HBO is like what Top 40 was. You got a lot of people trying to get that money. As I say, we used to tour to promote records and now we put out records to promote tours. Because you got a new record, you guys will write about us, somebody will know we’re coming to town and they might buy a ticket.
Americana Highways: Has that made the industry more… personable?
James McMurtry: I don’t really know. I’ve kept on the road because that’s what I could do. That’s what I was kind of good at. I don’t care too much about the industry. The industry is long in the past as far as I’m concerned. My label probably doesn’t want to hear that, but they’ve got things figured out.
Americana Highways: Would the James who first picked up a guitar as a young boy be surprised that he’d be writing and performing at this stage in your life?
JM: Probably not because that kid didn’t know a whole lot. He didn’t know what was in between.
AH: I’m always fascinated with catalogs of music and what that means to the individual who put it together, and I’m curious, at what point did you feel like you transitioned from a musician to a career musician?
JM: I didn’t notice. Once I got the record deal, it was my job to write songs, to write enough in time for records. Then after a while the business changed where I didn’t feel like I needed a record until my tour.
It helps me to have a deadline sometimes. It definitely did with this record. I mean, I was messing around with these songs for years and talking to Ross Hogarth about working with him as a producer, and he finally called up and said, “Look, what we’re going to do is I’m going to book the time at Groove Masters and you’re going to finish the songs.” So then I had a hard deadline and all the songs came in pretty quick after that.
AH: Did having Ross involved as a producer again, who worked with you in the early days of your career, bring things full circle?
JM: He was not a producer in those days. Ross was Mellencamp’s engineer, so he recorded and mixed my first two records and we didn’t work together for awhile after that. And then I had to learn to produce myself at one point because nobody else wanted to. So I made a record for Sugar Hill and sent in the rough mixes and they said, “Well, yeah, this is good.” I said, “Okay, great, can you pay for a really good engineer to mix it?” So I took it to Ross and had him mix it – Saint Mary of the Woods – and by then he had been producing people. I don’t think he’d done Keb’ Mo’ yet or got a Grammy or anything, but his career went off in the production direction after that.
So I thought it’d be cool to get back with Ross because after a couple of records, I felt like I needed to learn more tricks. I’d already used up the tricks I learned from Mellencamp and Don Dixon and Lloyd Maines. So I brought C.C. Adcock in for Complicated Game, and then I brought Ross in for this one. I don’t know what I’ll do next time. I’m kind of going back to producer school.
AH: So you think you’ll produce your own work again?
JM: Probably. I’m not in a hurry though.
AH: Does it give you a different perspective working with a producer now given that you did produce your own records in the past?
JM: I don’t know. The thing is, Ross is way ahead of me because he evolved with the technology. He’s one of the few people that went… he started out as a roadie, and then he learned to mix live sound, and then he went from there to the studio.
AH: It is crazy to think just how much the technology has altered the landscape. It’s so much easier to make an album these day.
JM: Yeah, it’s not easier to make a good one, but it is easy. And then you got Pro Tools and you can grab waveforms and move them around. You don’t have to do that blade edit thing where you take a deep breath and hope you’re slicing that tape on a kick drum hit. (Laughter)
AH: What would somebody learn about you as a songwriter at this stage in your career by sitting down to listen to The Horses and the Hounds front to back?
JM: I can’t judge that because I’m looking from the inside out. I’m in the eye of the storm, which is where you need to be.
AH: In that case, what do you hope to be remembered for when you hang up your guitar and call it a career?
JM: I don’t care what I’m remembered for or if I’m remembered. I mean, I hope somebody can take the stuff I did and take it somewhere else. I guess the best compliment is if you influence some of the younger writers that are coming up and that’s how your music lives, is in the works of those that follow.
AH: So that something you’ve created strikes a chord with someone else somewhere down the road.
JM: Yeah, the way Kristofferson did for me.
To get your hands (and ears) on The Horses and the Hounds, visit http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com.
Follow his column here: https://americanahighways.org/category/columns/wasteland-bait-tackle/