More reflective but just as incisive.
Has James McMurtry ever made a bad album? Or even a mediocre one? It seems that his writing continually goes from strength to strength and, while his wry and often lugubrious views on life might not be to everyone’s taste, there seems to be a steadily growing number of us waiting on his increasingly infrequent forays into the recording studio. We’ve had to wait over six years since his last, excellent studio album, 2015’s “Complicated Game” but he has finally returned with a new album, “The Horses & The Hounds” and on a new label, New West Records, the Nashville based company that prides itself on being the label “for artists who perform real music for real people”. McMurtry certainly fits that billing and, hopefully, this will be the start of a fruitful relationship.
And it is off to a good start with this album. As McMurtry closes in on his sixtieth birthday (in 2022) he seems in a more reflective mood. Album opener ‘Canola Fields’ finds him thinking about an old flame and road trips from days gone by, observing that getting older can have its benefits, “cashing in on a thirty-year crush; you can’t be young and do that”. He’s even more philosophical on the next track, ‘If It Don’t Bleed’ and with that touch of bitterness we’ve come to expect from the best McMurtry songs, “Now it’s all I can do just to get out of bed, there’s more in the mirror than there is up ahead, I smile and I nod, like I heard what you said every time. So run another rack, pour another shot, you don’t get it back so give it all you got while you still got a more or less functional body and mind”. McMurtry has always been a writer who chooses, and uses, his words particularly well and there’s plenty of evidence that he’s lost none of his touch on this record. Often acerbic but always well observed, his songs don’t just paint pictures but delve deep into the stories behind those pictures, so that he often delivers not just a narrative but a backstory to his characters as well. McMurtry always seems to pack more into a circa three-minute song than most, without ever over-writing the lyrics. It’s a rare talent.
There’s a more muscular feel to this record than his last outing. He’s chosen to go back to the producer who engineered on his first two albums, Ross Hogarth, as well as bring guitarist David Grissom back into the band. Grissom was the main guitar player on those same two first albums, though he’s contributed on a number of McMurtry albums since. It’s a dynamic combination that has definitely beefed up McMurtry’s sound this time round. If he was looking to recapture some of that verve and aggression of his youth it has worked well and given this latest batch of songs a distinctly different sound and feel to his last album; it’s always good to see an artist ring the changes. There’s no question that both Hogarth and Grissom bring a more driving pulse to McMurtry’s music but what’s less convincing is what they bring to his songwriting. He has co-written a track with each of them, the album’s title track with Grissom and album closer, ‘Blackberry Winter’, with Hogarth. There’s one other co-write on the album, ‘Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call’, on which he collaborated with Daren Hess and Cornbread. None of the co-writes are bad but they all seem to lack the intensity and focus of his solo written material, you almost instinctively recognise these tracks because of this and it serves to underline just how good McMurtry’s solo writing is. Many songwriters benefit from working with other writers but the evidence here would suggest McMurtry isn’t one of them.
Given Hogarth’s track record of working with the likes of Motley Crue and The Dead Daisies you might expect wall-to-wall distorted guitars and pounding bass riffs, but he proves to have a surprisingly light touch when it’s needed. The track ‘Jackie’, which paints a picture of a hard rural life and getting by in difficult circumstances, is beautifully pitched and features some superb cello work, courtesy of Cameron Stone. The Cello is a beautiful instrument but integrating it well into a folk/rock setting is no mean feat and Hogarth pulls it off with aplomb. Other stand-out tracks are the terrific storytelling of ‘Decent Man’, based on a news report of a farmer who murdered his neighbour; the guitar work is outstanding. ‘Vaquero’ is a tribute to screenwriter Bill Whitliff, who McMurtry knew through his father and their work together on the ‘Lonesome Dove’ TV series, and its clear from this song that James McMurtry held him in high regard; there’s some nice acoustic guitar interplay between McMurtry himself and David Grissom on this track. Perhaps the best track on the album is ‘Operation Never Mind’, a quite brilliant observation on the establishment’s management of information dissemination, which is particularly pertinent in the wake of current events in Afghanistan, “No one knows, ‘cause no one sees. No one cares, ‘cause no one knows. No one knows, ‘cause no one sees it on TV”. McMurtry may be mellowing in some respects but he’s lost none of his ability to identify the issues that need addressing and react accordingly, “we got a handle on it this time. No-one’s gonna tell us we were wrong. We won’t let the cameras near the fighting, that way we won’t have another Vietnam”.
McMurtry talks extensively about the new album in his interview with our Americana UK colleague, Alasdair Fotheringham, and if you haven’t read it yet it’s really worth checking out. As ever, he’s forthright about his own work and offers some great insights into his writing.
Suffice to say, this is another excellent album from James McMurtry. Proof that growing older and looking back on life can go hand in hand with looking ahead at the issues still to be tackled.