How being ‘Kings of Middle of Nowhere’ helped inspire his latest album.
When the time finally comes that we can look back on the pandemic, musical historians may well note that it proved fertile terrain for a lot of acoustic, back-porchy-type Americana. However, if they listen to James McMurtry’s long-awaited new album, ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ then scratch their heads and end up concluding its only common ground with the pandemic was the release date, they’d pretty much be right. In fact it has a much longer backstory than that.
It’s not just that ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ has a much more hard-hitting, electric folk-rock sound than a lot of contemporary Americana or indeed McMurtry’s previous album, ‘Complicated Game’. As McMurtry tells AUK, ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ actually has roots stretching back to, wait for it, 1992 and his second of ten studio albums to date, ‘Candyland’. That was when, McMurtry’s said in other interviews, he felt like he was “Young Mr Intensity” and on ‘Candyland’ in particular, he rattles out one taut, high-speed rock-powered number (just listen to the machine-gun staccato drum intro and thunderous boom of electric guitars that ignites the start of the title track) after another.
‘The Horses and the Hounds’ doesn’t have such tensely angry lyrics, maybe, as ‘Candyland’, and as you might expect after nearly 30 years of McMurtry perfecting his trade, this latest album has a richer, slightly less raucous tone throughout as well. However, none of the former’s deceptively laconic nervous energy and inner fire has dissipated over three decades, either, just the opposite. For one thing, whereas ‘Candyland’ concludes with the fairly lowkey, acoustic ‘Dusty Pages’, ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ culminates in the magnificently upbeat ‘Blackberry Winter’, a song that pulls off Musical Mission Impossible and, somehow, manages to combine a superbly rowdy, uplifting chorus seemingly made for bellowing out in empty streets long after closing-time with some heart-rending lyrics (“It’s about talking somebody off the ledge” as McMurtry succinctly puts it). You could arguably count the number of singer-songwriters blessed with the wizardry to convincingly blend such resoundingly bleak scenarios with these kinds of high-voltage, tightly constructed melodies bursting with life on the fingers of one hand. But as ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ amply reconfirms, McMurtry is surely among their number.
According to McMurtry the ‘Candyland’ connection could partly be explained by Ross Hogarth, ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ sound engineer, also having had the same role for McMurtry’s first two records in the late 80s and early 90s. At the time Hogarth was also working for roots rocker John Mellencamp, “so he brings a lot of that to the picture.”. A further element of the ‘band getting back together’ was the contribution of guitarist David Grissom, who’s worked with both Joe Ely and Mellencamp, as well as appearing on McMurtry’s first three albums.
As for ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ not being a creature of the pandemic, “It was together as an album before the lockdown. We tracked it in June of 2019,” McMurtry says. “Then we did overdubs in the fall. We were still touring a lot so we’d juggle our schedules to get in and do vocals, guitar overdubs, whatever else.”.
“We were just about to finish up the keyboards part in March of 2020 when California locked down and we couldn’t get into wherever we had booked for that. So we had to use several different V3 Players”, a digital multi-channel recording program, “and Ross recorded a couple of guys via email, which you can do now. But it was a while getting all the keyboards together.”.
“Then we still had to mix and lockdown had happened and we were stuck most the way through the fall [of 2020] mixing. Although that was actually a good thing because it’s better to take your time with that. But in any case, the record’s only just now ready for release.”.
Hogarth also unintentionally trip-wired one of McMurtry’s creative processes that had long lain dormant: “I had a bunch of half-written songs, I kept messing around and Ross finally had enough of it and rang me up and said we can get in Groove Masters,” a studio owned by Jackson Browne, “but we have this time window we’ve got to hit.”.
“He said ‘I know you, you’ll do it’ and for a minute there I turned into the dog from The Jetsons”, the Hanna-Barbera comic science fiction sitcom from the sixties, “who’d put an R in front of every word, so he was always going Ruh-roh for ‘Uh-oh.’ So when I heard those words I was like ‘Ruh-roh!’. “.
Rather than McMurtry seriously contemplating an alternative career as Astro the pet space-dog in Orbit City, though, thanks to the impending deadlines, he found himself using “my old technique where we’d have booked the studio time and then it was like I’d have to do my schoolwork on the bus and get it done. I hadn’t really done that in a long time.”.
“It still works, but it’s just not something I don’t want to do every time at this age. But the songs were fairly adrenaline-fuelled there at the end, cos it was real all of a sudden: we had a studio to record in and a bill to pay for that, too.”.
So if time pressure considerably and indirectly boosted the intensity of what ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ sounds like, what do the latest batch of McMurtry snapshots of North American life actually tell us? By way of getting into that subject AUK runs a quote from another American artist, Willa Cather, with a strong, journalistic eye for local, offbeat detail, up the flag-post: “there only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”. Does McMurtry think that like Cather, over the years he’s found himself approaching the same themes as ever, merely from different angles?
“From different ages, more like,” he reasons. “I used to think rock’n’roll was young and it was young once, but now it’s older than me, and I’m getting up there. I don’t feel any real need to act younger than I am.”.
But if his perspective changes with time, McMurtry’s ability to ink out searingly concise life stories on strikingly vivid, and often unfamiliar, landscapes and backdrops remains a constant. So when ‘Canola Fields’, track one, side one of ‘The Horses and the Hounds’ kicks with the phrase “I was thinking ’bout you crossing Southern Alberta”, it’s like a green light coming on that his studio album total may be finally hitting double figures, but we’re back in very familiar McMurtry territory indeed, and far from being worse off for all that.
It goes without saying that Southern Alberta isn’t exactly the kind of place that you’ll see inscribed between Las Vegas and the Hollywood Bowl on the back of some mainstream band’s t-shirt where they list all the glamourous venues they’ve played. But as McMurtry says, rather than seeking inspiration by wandering off the beaten track on purpose, “We had to go there, ’cos we travel and for some reason as a band we’ve become the Kings of the Middle of Nowhere,” he says.
“We do really well in Idaho and Montana. Anything you can call a city in the state of Montana we’ve played.”.
“We’ve done Miles City, Great Falls, I guess we missed Helena and Butte, but we have done Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula, the whole thing. And then we get into western Canada sometimes which is very risky because the distances are very long and we don’t draw as well up there.”.
But if audiences are scant in southern Alberta, what you see from the band van window can get creative processes flowing, in McMurtry’s case, at least.
“One of the main crops they grow is canola. I didn’t know what it was, even if I’d seen the bottles of cooking oil and I knew what it did,” McMurtry recalls.
“So we’d tour across southern Saskatchewan and Alberta in July and the fields would be this bright Chartreuse [yellow]. The blossoms are insanely bright and you’d get this electric Chartreuse carpet stretching out to the horizon further than you can point.”.
In the song, that Chartreuse yellow brings back memories of a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle or ‘bug’, driven by the narrator’s unrequited affection back in the late 60s and that, in turn, starts the process of unpacking the whole tale of ‘Canola Fields’. The song culminates in a late blossoming of a long undeclared, unfulfilled love, “cashing in on a 30-year crush, you can’t be young and do that”, amid a general mood of emotional desperation and defiance, witness the rousing chorus, “take my hand Marie, keep me from drifting far out to sea Or I’ll be lost out there.”. It’s basically a song dealing with middle-aged love or lust or combinations of both, or as McMurtry says, “Getting the 40-year-olds to realise that it’s OK to be 59. I don’t think I can stretch further than that, but that’ll work.”. The same stories as ever, then, to quote Ms. Cather again, but for different ages, and on one McMurtry track at least, painted bright Chartreuse yellow for good measure.
But if McMurtry drives back half a century in time on ‘Canola Fields’, there’s plenty of ground for him to innovate, too, on ‘The Horses and The Hounds’. ‘Decent Man’, for example is based on a short story by rural Kentucky writer Wendell Berry called ‘Pray Without Ceasing’, about a farmer who shoots his best friend. As McMurtry says, that’s the first time he’s ever based a song on a book, for all a number of other artists have already been down that road. “Woody Guthrie did it in ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad’ with ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and I just heard that Steinbeck said ‘the son of the bitch did my whole book in four minutes,’” he points out with a glimmer of amusement in his voice.
But no matter how unprecedented it is for McMurtry to mine that kind source for ‘Decent Man’, true to his own style in the song McMurtry weaves in views or landscapes that are intimately linked to what he’s lived or witnessed on his travels. For example, the hauntingly bleak, almost Old Testament-like chorus “My fields are empty now, my ground won’t take the plough, it’s washed down to gravel and stones, it’s only good for burying bones” is based, he says, on what someone once told him in Des Moines about when the nearby Missouri river flooded so badly that it scoured out miles of adjacent farmland down to bare rock.
The ties between friendship and mortality also re-appear in ‘Vaquero’, Cowboy, but this time as one of the more personal songs on the album. “That song happened because I was on the road and I got a text that Bill Whitliff had died,” McMurtry tells AUK simply and that recollection is indeed how ‘Vaquero’ opens up on the album. But the story behind it, sung partly in Spanish as the song title suggests, is way more intricate.
Whitiliff was originally a friend of his father, the late Larry McMurtry the writer and scriptwriter, and he scripted and co-produced the mini-series of ‘Lonesome Dove’, Larry McMurtry’s sprawling, doom-ridden tale of cowboys herding cattle across nineteenth-century America.
“He pretty much saved that project, because it was shot for TV and the TV execs didn’t care for cattle drives,” McMurtry, who played a small walk-on part in the series himself, says. “All they wanted was Anjelica Huston, close-up face shots, and Bill somehow got creative control of that. He went back in and said, ‘Na, you’ve got to put that cattle drive in there, there’ll be plenty of time for Anjelica and Robert Duvall. Got to have some cowboy stuff going on.’”.
But if ‘Lonesome Dove’ remains a largely hidden backdrop to ‘Vaquero’, McMurtry honours Whitliff’s legacy in another field, too, in the same song.
“Bill was also a great photographer and he did two wonderful coffee table books, the first of which was called ‘Vaquero’ “ he recalls. “He took pictures of cow-workers on a ranch in northern Mexico. It was a huge place, hundreds of thousands of acres with no cross-fencing, which meant the work there, roping and draggin’ [cattle] in the open, stuff like that, was pretty nineteenth century. They’d have a chuck wagon too, they must have taken the tyres off a pickup and put them on the wagon, so it’d ride a little smoother. But it was basically the same thing.”.
“So Bill took these great photos detailing the whole life of those cowboys, and then he took a series of pinhole photography for a book called ‘La Vida Brinca’”, literally ‘life jumps’, a Mexican saying meaning ‘you don’t know what’s coming up next for you’, which McMurtry again namechecks in ‘Vaquero’. “But as in Spanish you can flip it around, put the verb in front, which worked better for my song, so I’ve got it in there as “Brinca la Vida”.”.
That brings in the question I’ve been wanting to ask McMurtry a long time, which is what extent music from south of the Texas border, as opposed to from the USA, has had on his work.
“I don’t know about south of the current border but the saying round here is that San Antonio is the northernmost city in Mexico,” he says, “and when I lived in San Antonio for four years, I absorbed a little bit of that conjunto norteño music which is a blend of Spanish and German music, too.”.
He explains its origin, “ The German settlers here brought both the accordion, as well as their beer, and if you listen to conjunto, it’s basically polka sung in Spanish. There was a little bit of that conjunto worked into a song of mine called ‘Safe Side’, which is about the border.”. As for the beer, that German influence lingers on south of the border, too, in the name of one of the most popular Mexican brands, Bohemia – but pronounced Bo-em-ee-ah, without the h, should you ever wish to order one.
Talk of the frontier brings up the subject of McMurtry’s more political music, which almost feels like an independent off-shoot of his writing and which appears in ‘The Horses and the Hounds’ most overtly on ‘Operation Never Mind’.
The song is very similar in spirit and situations to those evoked in the caustic anti-Iraq war protest numbers of ‘Just Us Kids’, his last album but one. Rather than the conflict itself, though, ‘Operation Never Mind’ runs the rule over the distortion of perspective and numbing of sensitivity that modern-day war reporting can cause. And like so much of ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ itself, the song contains some rich historical roots.
As McMurtry recalls, “back when I was a kid and Vietnam was going we didn’t have 50 different cable channels so everybody could have their own take on it, we had Walter Cronkite”, the revered CBS anchorman often cited (and indeed voted) as ‘the most trusted man in America, “and a couple of guys who were trying to be Walter Cronkite. Everybody, right left and centre, listened to Walter, but there was a centre that could hold.”.
“And Vietnam didn’t end because ‘longhairs’ were marching in the streets. It ended because Walter Cronkite and his generation got enough of it, they didn’t think there was a point to it and they damn sure didn’t want to pay for it anymore. So they got out.”.
“But that doesn’t happen now. For one thing[1980s US president] Ronald Reagan ended the First Amendment for us”, the right to freedom of speech and of the press, “with regard to war coverage when the US invaded Granada and they arrested the only two journalists who’d got on the island. But middle America didn’t protest. They’d had enough of Vietnam war guilt or whatever.”.
“Then in the next war [Iraq in the early 1990s] you’ve got [General] Schwarzkopf”, the US commander in that Middle East conflict, “spoon-feeding us stuff out of a tent and then after that there are some journalists embedded in platoons and they’re doing great journalism.”.
“ But they’re not likely showing stuff the platoon leader doesn’t want them seeing. So we don’t have real news coverage in a war zone, the perspective’s gone and that leaves us out of the picture. “
McMurtry cites Tennyson’s famous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ poem and how the soldiers credo is ‘not to reason why’. “But as free citizens, our job is to question why,” he insists, “but we can’t do it if we don’t have the information.”.
“We might not be inclined to question why if we did have the information, we’re pretty lazy and that’s part of this song too, the way war has blended into video games, we can go home and pretend we’re the soldiers. But meantime the real war is going on.”. And as McMurtry sings, there’s often a highly unsettling dearth of any objective information for the general public to be aware of what is really happening, and maybe react to it in ways the politicians and powers that be might not want.
Different perspectives on the same event crop up again on the title track, ‘The Horses and the Hounds’. It’s an ambiguous tale of somebody long on the run from, presumably, the law, but who opts finally to turn back and face his/her pursuers.
But when AUK suggests to McMurtry that this part sounded a little bit like a musical version of the end of ‘Thelma and Louise’, all self-destructive defiance as they drive over the cliff rather than face arrest, death or worse, he pointed out it didn’t have to be necessarily so in his song. “He or she might drive back through the lines of horses and hounds in a semi,” he says, “there’s a line in there where he sings ‘if I can get this rig turned around’ and the back cover of the album has a couple of guys on horseback with guns looking at these headlights coming back at them. So it could be a more positive outcome than you think.”.
And this point links to what could be seen as a constant theme or attitude in all of his music, as McMurtry puts it in general, “The songs are supposed to be for the listener to figure out. The writer can have his own opinions, but a song gets more popular the more people can identify with it, and for that to happen, the listener has to see part of him or herself in it.”.
“That’s why ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ worked for the crowds and ‘Cheney’s Toy’”, one of McMurtry’s songs from ‘Just Us Kids’, about the Iraq war“ did not. Because ‘Cheney’s Toy’ is McMurtry ranting on, and ‘We Can’t Make it Here’ could be any of us.”.
It’s fair to say that ‘could be any of us’ concept is a key trait of McMurtry’s work, one that goes right the way back to before ‘Candyland’ to his first album ‘Too Long in The Wasteland’ (1989) and its memorable cover, which shows McMurtry looking like a sideburned relative of the Outlaw Country music gangs, staring moodily at the camera and standing on the edge of a sun-bleached desert lane likely leading nowhere. From way back then when he looked like a Badlands’ ultimate outsider right through to the here and now, McMurtry’s work seems naturally to hone in on experiences that occur all over the place, not just wastelands, and to all kinds of people, and which, crucially, most of us can relate to in some shape or form. McMurtry half-smiles in agreement at this latter idea and confirms “I’m working on that. I’m trying to make that happen.”.
And on ‘The Horses and The Hounds’, rest assured, it most certainly does.
James McMurtry’s ‘The Horses and the Hounds’ is released on 20th August by New West Records.
Excellent article Alisdair – I think I might have said this before regarding JM to whom you seem to have an affinity?