Strange, Stubborn Troubadour: The Life of James McMurtry


True and fierce are two words routinely applied to the songwriting prowess of James McMurtry.

Not surprisingly, since anyone familiar with his repertoire of soft ballads, robust rock songs, and political anthems recognizes their strength. Haunting beauty and jugular-grabbing verbiage are two of the connective threads that link the acclaimed albums McMurtry has released in his 23-year career.

So, how is it that a lyricist once referred to as “the songwriting conscience of America,” stands aloof at the periphery of mainstream music?

His songwriting is lucid and precise, and he has proven time again that he is not afraid to take on the powers that be. Perhaps McMurtry’s songwriting has ruffled too many political feathers; most notable of which, Just Us Kids, featured the venom-laced Cheney’s Toy, one of the most pointed musical indictments ever of George W. Bush and his administration.

Even though the bulk of his catalogue is apolitical, he has been branded as a political songwriter, a guy who can ratchet up the polemics.

“I’ve been pigeonholed,” says McMurtry, “In life you don’t want to be labeled. Unfortunately, you have to, or the music industry can’t package you. I’ve still got to make a living. I don’t mind if people listen to my political stuff, but it’s only a small part of what I do. I don’t like being judged on only a few songs, because it can be a detriment.”

A self-professed misanthrope, McMurtry says that he has learned over the years how to play to an audience rather than at them. The high-energy and sustained tempo of his performances retains audiences. Yet, the elusive nature of his style – folk, country, Americana, rock and roll, you pick – makes it hard to pin him down to a certain genre.

“Americana came along after me. The Americana radio genre came up in the wake of the disintegration, the reformulation, of Adult Album Alternative. I was recording before that format existed. My first records were pushed to Adult-Oriented Rock, which gave DJs freedom to play anything off the whole album. When Adult-Oriented Rock grew into a full blown format, all the major labels had departments to market to it, and, then, a little while after that, Americana came up, and so I got into it.”

Categorize him how you will, McMurtry sings with ever more authority and alternative cynical grace.

With each album, he finds more to say and a stubborn, hardnosed way to say it. McMurtry writes songs filled with characters so unaffected that you’re sure they’re going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes. He creates a novel’s worth of sentiment in four minutes of suggestive couplets. His characters are detached, stranded without aims to strive toward.

Singer and songwriter James McMurtry will play in Missoula on Sept. 20 at the Wilma Theater.

One such song, called Holiday, paints vivid vignettes of a highway patrolman, a national guardsman, children staring at roadside crosses, a trucker missing the football game, and a family of Midwesterners and their ordinary conversations about the Green Bay Packers and potential snowfall.

There is a raspy, poetic mystique in his lines, an exquisitely dangerous emanation of the harm and hope of day-to-day life. McMurtry is a true Americana poet; even though, he doesn’t see himself as a poet, but “more of a cynic.”

James McMurtry was born in 1962 in Forth Worth, Texas, the son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment). He grew up on a fixed diet of Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff records. As a young Texan, McMurtry wanted to be Cash. His mother taught him to play a few chords on the guitar when has only seven, and he started writing songs in college, moving on to perform at beer gardens and happy hours all over Arizona and Texas.

“I worked as a bartender and serenade in San Antonio and played gigs in Tucson when I was a student, studying English and Spanish,” says McMurtry. “I hadn’t written anything, so it was all covers, and I got tired of doing that. I wanted something that was my own. When I migrated to San Antonio, I got involved in that Kerrville Folk Festival. They had a songwriter contest, so I managed to scrape some songs together for that. I was in the winner’s circle, but I didn’t get invited back to the main stage. But it was a little bit of a lift. From that, I could start getting gigs in Austin. My plan at that point was to move to Nashville and try to be a songwriter, one of those guys that can draft the next hit.”

His father passed his demo to singer John Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry’s 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, marking the beginning of a series of projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill.

Singer and songwriter James McMurtry will play in Missoula on Sept. 20 at the Wilma Theater.

In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for his Longform Music Video of Where’d You Hide The Body. It Had To Happen received the American Indie Award, in 1997, for Best Americana Album.

McMurtry’s 2005 Childish Things garnered some of the highest critical praise of his career and spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Americana Music Radio Chart in 2005 and 2006. Bold, smart, and pithy, the album captures McMurtry at the top of his game.

In September 2006, Childish Things and We Can’t Make It Here won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year, respectively. McMurtry received more Americana Music Award nominations for 2008’s Just Us Kids, an album that marked his highest Billboard 200 chart position.

Though he is a solid guitar player, it’s the poignant lyrics of his deep catalog that keep McMurtry so topical. Last year, We Can’t Make It Here was cited among The Nation’s “Best Protest Songs Ever.”

For McMurtry, songwriting begins with a pesky thought, two lines, and a melody.

“If it keeps me up at night, or just plain bugs me, I finish the song,” he says. “If it doesn’t I just leave it. There are a lot of things going on in our heads, man.” Choctaw Bingo, one of his most popular songs, came out of a writing exercise after a two-year dry spell.

McMurtry, who says that he’d jump at the chance to be on a major label again, tours constantly.

“Touring is the only way to keep a music career going. You pretty much have to tour. Record sales are not what they used to be. If you don’t have your songs in a big film, then you better be able to tour.”

At this stage in his life, McMurtry understands that he may always be restricted to the distinct musical circle that appreciates his lyrics’ gritty style and honest portrayals of American life.

“Even going back to my first album, I’ve been labeled as a critical hit and commercial disappointment,” says McMurtry. “My whole career consists of a lot of stuff that’s just out of my grasp and control.”

James McMurtry and The Gourds play at The Wilma Theatre on September 20.


Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.


Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. It’s available now for $2.00 as an eBook on Smashwords.