I always feel like I’m in the principal’s office when I talk to James McMurtry. It’s not that I’m in trouble, necessarily, but I’d better have a helluva reason for being there. Of course, in this case, I do. McMurtry’s long-awaited New West debut, The Horses and the Hounds arrived on August 20th and is exceptional in the way that all his work tends to be. Every line of every song feels carved from bone and populated by real-time epiphanies that dare to endure. As always, McMurty comes equipped with a solid core of friends and players (David Grissom, Daren Hess, Sean Hurley, and Kenny Aronoff) as well as guest appearances from Lone Star conspirators Charlie Sexton, Bukka White, Betty Soo, and others. The Horses and the Hounds has regularly been qualified as James’s “first album in six years” and as much as I’ve anticipated it, I wonder at the sentiment. Six years? Is that how long it takes to really know someone? Because that’s my notion of McMurtry’s songs and the many lives inhabiting them. They take time. On this trip to the office, James indulges my commentary, continues our history lesson, shares his frustration at the ongoing pandemic response in his home state of Texas, and laments the myth of the artist.
AI- You and I spoke back right before you came to Macon to do a show on the Creek Stage [January 2020], and first off, man, I gotta tell you, you and the guys were on that night. That was just a fantastic show. Bonnie [Whitmore] doin’ the opening set was amazing– and little did we know what lay ahead for us up around the bend!
No, we didn’t!
Throughout this last year and a half, you have embraced the streaming concept, the streaming show. There are a lot of artists that couldn’t get with it. And I totally understand that for various reasons. For you, what was the appeal and what have you learned by doing that?
It wasn’t so much appeal as necessity. I had to have some kind of income. I wasn’t on the road, so it was basically virtual busking is what I started doin’. I put my tip info out there and people were generous. It got me through. That’s why I did it. And I think ultimately, it needs to be elevated to an art form. I have not done that yet. A lot of people were lookin’ at it as a stop-gap measure. I think it’s gonna be somethin’ we’re gonna be doin’ a lot of in the future.
A lot of people went and did higher-end production versions of the basic streaming show, even if it was just from their living rooms. But a lot of people went into theaters and were doin’ it that way. I agree with you. I think that it’s something that does need to be elevated. Somethin’ that I speak about with a lot of people lately is going back into that non-stop road grind, which some people love and some people do not. I agree with you that it’s something that needs to be fine-tuned.
No, I just think that it’s not gonna be the last pandemic. There are gonna be future shutdowns, hopefully, a long time in the future, but it’s somethin’ we’re going to have to learn– how to get along in this digital world that we’ve created.
Now, when we spoke last time, I got a pretty good history lesson from you when it came to war coverage and war correspondence. And I didn’t know it at the time because I hadn’t heard [The Horses and the Hounds], but you were basically layin’ out “Operation Never Mind” for me. “No one cares ’cause no one sees, no one cares ’cause no one knows.” I have to imagine that with the album out, everybody bein’ able to hear that song and seein’ what’s goin’ on television right now with Afghanistan that you’re sittin’ uneasy and strangely like a fortune teller.
No. Anybody coulda seen Afghanistan comin’– anybody that was around during Vietnam (laughs)! Some say this exit is worse than Vietnam and probably is because the NVA at least had to fight their way into Saigon. The Taliban just walked in in 11 days. I don’t know, I’m not there, but it just seems like we go into these countries that we don’t know anything about. Just because we have 300,000 government troops doesn’t mean they ever intended to fight. They might’ve just been doing it for the money and they might be related to the Taliban. The tribal ties over there are just a different thing. No western power has ever dominated it. They call it the “Graveyard of Empires”, you know? The British tried for 200 years. I remember in the ’70s when the mujahidin– as I guess their grandsons are in the Taliban now– but we backed them against the Soviets. And when they first started fightin’ the Soviets without our assistance, they were using World War II British small arms against AK-47s.
Actually, there was an account I saw, written up not too long ago, by a journalist who was out there with the mujahidin back in those days fightin’ the Soviets. He saw a guy aim rifle at a helicopter and he said, “Man, I hope that guy doesn’t shoot ’cause that’s gonna bring down hellfire on us from that Russian gunship!” And the guy was smart enough, he didn’t fire. Well, the journalist walked up and checked out the guy’s rifle and it said “Victoria Regina” on the side of it. It was a single shot Martini made in 1878– like a Rudyard Kipling era British arm, 577 Eley black powder round. That’s what they were fightin’ with. They didn’t care. They were gonna run those people out and they did. Probably ran ’em out quicker with our help. I don’t know.
The song “Jackie” on The Horses and the Hounds. You’ve talked about that character, the horsewoman, that runs through your albums. One of my favorite tracks of yours is “Ruby and Carlos”, and it surprised me when I read that you said you’d been tryin’ to kill that character off for years! I think Fred Eaglesmith has a character like that, the trucker, and he says he checks in with him from time to time to see how he’s doin’. It’s always worse! Is that how it is for you? You check in with this character to see how she is?
No, she just pops up when she feels like it, I guess. “Jackie”, that song… I didn’t realize that the trucker in the song was female when I first started writin’ it. It had those lines about “jackknifed on black ice,” and I started writin’ “Jackie” at some other time, and then I realized that the meter [fit], so I just stuck ’em together. I made Jackie the trucker. I don’t know if you can do long haul trucking and horse training at the same time, but I betcha some woman has tried!
“Decent Man”… The first time I heard that song, I thought, “This should be Clint Eastwood’s next or final Western, whichever it’s gonna be!” As I was gettin’ ready for this interview, I saw that I’m far from alone in that sentiment. I know that you were inspired to write that by Wendell Berry’s “Pray Without Ceasing”, but the idea of your songs in film– does that hold any allure for you? Somebody adapting your music to make a movie?
Oh, that’d be great (laughs)! If they wanna buy some film rights, I’m all about it!
I saw an interview where you talked about flying to Europe years ago and how it was a different animal than it is now– bribin’ skycaps to get your drum kits on the plane. That got me thinking about how so much has changed for musicians over the years. And then I got to thinkin’– it was fresh on my mind with Charlie Watts passing away– how the perception of artists has changed over the years. I think that perception is really changing again because of the way that people have an access that was never there before. How do you feel about that?
I don’t care for it really. They want us to sell accessibility now, and I came up in an era when we were trying to sell exclusivity and myth. Accessibility can despoil the myth, and I don’t know if that’s good for business. I’ll try to despoil myths about everything else– but myths about artists? Nah, I’d just assume they thought we were a little different.
How do you combat that? How do you fight that evolution?
Well, nowadays, I don’t go to the merch table. Everybody out there has got a cell phone, which is a camera, and they all want your picture. And in COVID times, I’m not about to do that!
Let’s talk about that part. It looks like you’re easin’ back into touring, and 2022 looks like it’s stacking up pretty good. You’ve written multiple pieces on vaccinations and live shows in support and standing up with Jason Isbell and multiple artists who are sayin’, “If there’s no proof of vaccination, I ain’t playin’.” Personally, I haven’t been able to bring myself to go to a show. I just haven’t felt comfortable with it, but at the same time, I don’t want to see artists not be able to make a living. I understand the whole idea of not wanting to be told what to do, but at the same time, it seems like things are just getting more dangerous.
Well, certainly. I’m demanding vaccination cards or negative [tests] within 72 hours and masks at indoor shows– which is why I’m not doin’ very many indoor shows. The only shows I have on the books right now, in the next week I’m goin’ to Arizona and New Mexico. I’m doin’ five dates. The rest of my September was canceled because nobody in Georgia or Tennessee wants to honor my protocols, so I’m just not playin’.
That’s lousy. I’m sorry to hear that.
Texas is even worse ’cause down here if a bar tries to implement a mask mandate or anything like that, the state threatens their liquor license. Anybody that crosses [Texas Governor Greg] Abbott know it’s gonna get shut down. I don’t understand why the Fed’s tellin’ Texas what to do is government overreach, but the state of Texas tellin’ a private business what to do is patriotism somehow! It makes no sense whatsoever.
All it really is Abbott wants to get reelected, and he has to be the meanest Republican in the room if he’s gonna do that. ‘Cause if he does anything even halfway sensible on a public health law, he’ll be instantly labeled a RINO [Republican In Name Only] and primary’d out. That’s just how mean it is.
As far as not bein’ told what to do with regard to public health, it’s ridiculous! When we were kids, we didn’t go to school if we didn’t get vaccinated for measles. That’s just how you do public health. It’s a collective threat, and it requires a collective response. And that requires government mandates. Part of what government has to do is protect the wise from the stupid. Texas hospitals are full! I better not have a car wreck or a heart attack ’cause I’m not gonna get a bed they’re jammed full of unvaccinated morons who got COVID!
I read your piece about that. I won’t let my daughter play on the monkey bars right now ’cause I told her we can’t take her to the hospital if she breaks a bone (laughs)! It’s not funny haha, it’s funny-sad that we’ve come to that point. The governor here has sent out the National Guard to assist hospitals in our area in Central Georgia. They’re sending troops in to assist with triage, and I think, “Is that the best place for those resources?”
That’s wise. But why are we in a situation where we need the National Guard to assist with triage? These people that got vaccinated, a lot of ’em might get infected too. We’ve had a rash of breakthrough infections in Austin– but those people didn’t go to the hospital. They’re not breaking the health care system because they got vaccinated. I have relatives who are taking horse medicine! None of my relatives are gonna get equine worms, I’ll tell you that!
I don’t know anybody that’s done that! I keep seein’ the stories, and I keep seein’ friends of mine in the veterinary field pleading with people like, “What are you doing? Don’t do this!”
It’s folk medicine. It’s just tribal. To some people, if you get a vaccine, you’re a communist!
You’ve said before that you don’t write autobiographically, but I’m curious about the song “Vaquero” on the album and your friend Bill Witliff. You got to know him when you were on set filming Lonesome Dove and maintained that relationship over the years, right?
Bill was a great guy. The last time I saw him, he was arranging to buy my archives, such as they are, mostly consisting of notepads full of scribbled lyrics that never made songs. But scholars like that kind of stuff. Bill started a collection at Texas State University, which certainly helped me out last year. I was in a hotel room somewhere when I got a text that he had died, so I just started writin’. And that’s what came out.
What’s it feel like to write about people that you actually know?
It’s rare. But I’ll write a song about anything once I get goin’ on it.
“Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call”… I’m shocked, absolutely shocked that it has taken so long for that concept to just now be rendered into song! “I keep losin’ my glasses…” Is that the line that started that song?
No, that line was a placeholder that I stuck in there hopin’ I would come up with a real chorus– and I never did. But when I played it for the guys, they all said, “Just to leave it in there, man. It’s fine.”
I’ve seen you do a “What’s the Matter”, I think a couple of different times over the last few years, so I was very pleased to see that one show up on the record– just a good angsty rock n’ roll song. One of the things that I like most about your style of writing is that you manage to write like a teenager with that kind of energy and pace. Is that calculated? Do you know that you do that? Does that make sense what I’m sayin’?
I’m glad somebody thinks I do ’cause most of what they write is about how old I generally write. Even when I was younger.
But with that same sort of teen angst. It’s like middle-aged angst, you know?
Yeah, well, I’ve seen a lot of it drivin’ down the road, listenin’ to guys on their cell phones. They did get a little anxious for sure.
You close out the album with “Blackberry Winter”, and I would call that a pretty heavy cliffhanger. What’s next for you? Has the pandemic been a time for you to be creative or have you just immersed yourself in other thoughts?
I have written a couple of songs that are kind of okay. I don’t really write until I need to do a record, but I got a start on some things. The pandemic has changed my attitude. I don’t really miss the road all that much– and the road was how I defined myself at one point, you know? I was a guy that could keep tourin’ year in and year out whether I had a record or not for a while. And then four or five years’d go by and the draw would start fallin’ off and then I’d have to make a record. But I don’t need an identity anymore. I can just be me, and I can do the road as a vocation. I don’t need it for a sense of self.
Do you see that being an issue for your peers? For other artists that you know?
I don’t know. If it is, it’s their problem. It’s liberating to not need that stamp of approval or a category. I don’t have to categorize myself. Somebody else wants to? That’s fine as long it sells records.