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'People Hear Themselves in Those Lines': James McMurtry Talks the Art of the Song

Mary Keating-Burton

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry's most recent LP, “The Horses and The Hounds,” became a critical favorite upon its arrival last year.

It topped numerous Best of 2021 lists and proved that McMurtry’s songs — populated by characters falling in love for the last time, contemplating their own mortality, or frustrated by an endless cycle of death and war — still connect with an audience in a deep way.

McMurtry was scheduled to perform Sunday at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine, but the show was postponed because members of his band have contracted Covid-19. The show will be rescheduled.

McMurtry recently spoke with KMUW about songwriting, “The Horses and The Hounds” and how he has, thus far, failed to perfect the art of live streaming.

Interview Highlights

One of the themes on “The Horses and The Hounds” is aging. I picked up on a lot of that in the past, but now, I’m standing a few months away from 50 and the songs have a different color to them. Were you having thoughts about aging and mortality as you were working on the record? 

I wasn't really dwelling on it, it's just that's just in the air when you're over 50. Like, you don’t have to try to put it in a song; it's just there.

Has your source material changed over the years or have you always been good about observing moments and saving them up for later? 

I don't think like that; I just get a couple of lines and a melody. And I've tried to build on it. And if I can envision the character that said those lines, then I can work backwards and basically form the dialogue or the character for the story.

I don't set out to write a particular kind of song; I hear the start of it in my head and follow it wherever it leads.

The first song I heard by you was “Levelland,” and I suspect that’s a tune that people bring up a lot because I suspect they feel a connection to the world you’re describing into that tune. 

That's the basis of any song’s popularity -- whether the listener hears him or herself in it. That’s why “We Can’t Make It Here” was popular and “Cheney’s Toy” was not. They were in a similar vein but “Cheney’s Toy” was written about what was going on at the time. People thought I was saying that the soldiers were Cheney’s toys when I actually thought George W. Bush was Cheney’s toy. I thought it was clear but, by contrast, the narrator in “We Can’t Make It Here” was much more universal. A lot of people could hear themselves in those lines.

The same with “Levelland.” Anybody’s that’s from a small town and didn’t like it is going to relate to that song. And lots of people relate to that song.

Last week my two youngest kids surprised me. They’re 14 and 9 and they wanted to see the Elvis Presley movie, and now they’re obsessed with Elvis. I bought them some records and my son, the 9-year-old, was listening to one of them yesterday and said, “All these songs are about love. It’s like he doesn’t sing about anything else.” 

[Laughs.] That’s what got on the radio back then.

“The Horses and The Hounds” has been well received. It must have been a good feeling to see people embrace it the way they did. 

I'm just now finding that out because I hadn't been on the road much until the last couple of months, and now I'm seeing a lot of people singing along with it.

My recollection is that you were an early adopter of the livestream model at the start of the pandemic. People pointed to you as one of the people who was leading the charge. 

It was more of a twisted take on Mr. Rogers. Everything’s closer. People are right up in your face in your living room. I never did elevate it to an art form, I don’t think. I might have to try it again. Somebody should really make it into a thing.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.