Into the woods with James McMurtry, the Texas troubadour who’s spent a lifetime in pursuit
of great songs, open spaces, and the occasional wild turkey
Click here for a custom playlist of some of McMurtry's favorite tunes.
When I step off the twin-prop plane in Wichita Falls, Texas, and into the late-day heat of spring, wind blasting forty miles an hour, the first thing I hear, literally, is a loud and live rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” by what sounds like a marching band. Wichita Falls is home to Sheppard Air Force Base, one of the busiest airfields in the U.S. Air Force. The band is practicing, is all—it’s no special occasion—but then the Warthogs go screaming past, and James McMurtry drives up in his old Ranger pickup, his wild Jesus hair silhouetted by the westering sun, and I get it instantly. This isn’t just something he sings about—the heartland, rural values, hard choices, wars, politics—it’s his world, his milieu.
Known perhaps best for his hard-rocking driving-beat social protest songs, McMurtry has prodigious talents that exist far beyond the one-trick-pony stance of the angry troubadour. It’s hard to articulate what’s unique about his songs, but you know them the instant you hear them, not unlike a broad chain of deep-voiced male Southern white independent songwriting folk-country rockers with great guitar licks, great voices, great minds: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen. Gruff and gravelly in tone, energetic guitar, gold-standard lyrics—there isn’t any fluff anywhere. My own personal McMurtry favorite is “Holiday,” an extended ballad about the stresses and expectations upon modern families to uphold traditions, setting out on the road in inclement weather, determined to have a good time, a time of family unity. The story would be touching on that level alone, but with each new stanza, the stakes are raised.
He’s a traveling musician these days—he has been for over twenty years—playing about 150 shows a year, with a frequent gig at the Continental Club in Austin. It’s a tough go, even in the best of times; it’s a tough go now. Sometimes he travels with his band (a drummer, a bass player, and a sound man/guitarist); other times, he’s solo. His work has been influenced by other Texas legends such as Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen, but his songs are unmistakably his own.
In some things—his guitar work, for instance—he’s precise, just so, almost cautious, striving for perfection. In other things—such as the interior of his old truck—he’s a little less so. Priorities. Loose change sprawls on the floor and car seats. Split plastic cups crinkle underfoot, receipts flutter, empty plastic water bottles roll like bowling pins. He drinks a lot of water, probably between one and two gallons a day, as if trying to quench some burning inside.
His paternal great-grandfather moved to Archer County from Missouri in the 1880s; his grandfather said that at the turn of the twentieth century, there were “three mesquite trees” in the whole county. Then the mesquite swarmed over, due to the white culture’s overenthusiastic suppression of all wildfires. The mesquite destroyed rangeland by crowding out grasses, once a valuable thing. Then there was a big play for oil, but it’s going away; the last of the oil is way deep. Now the mesquite is the valuable thing, because it provides cover for deer and turkeys.
Landowners are locking up their land, folks he refers to as “the high-fence guys,” trying to keep deer on their land, like livestock, rather than wild animals, free to come and go. He doesn’t like it but he drives on, steady and easy. If you’re wondering whether he’s related to the writer Larry McMurtry, he is; Larry’s his dad. I’m here to talk to James about music, not his father’s writing, but I can’t help but think of the title Horseman, Pass By.