James McMurtry is, according to Karen Schoemer of the New York Times, a singer-songwriter in the deep “tradition of men picking up guitars and singing about what’s on their minds [that] has been thicker than pavement across American cultural history.” While most of these men with guitars sing in a style and voice that centers them in each song, McMurtry’s setting puts him on the outside of life, looking in.
He “puts a lot of store in geography,” Alanna Nash observed in Stereo Review, “in how the landscape ... frames the personalities of its people, making enemies out of neighbors, loners out of lovers, and pull-together friends out of strangers.” What raises his songs from a prosaic journalistic account, however, are his descriptions of the hard lives of his characters: plain and open, they recount and recognize without sympathy or pathos. Yet a subtle sensitivity pervades, supplying the characters with hope only if they wish to reach for it.
McMurtry is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment). His mother was an English professor, and though he read what he had to while growing up in this literary atmosphere, McMurtry considered the family’s huge piles of books “just something to cover the walls with,” he told Richard Harrington of the Washington Post
McMurtry’s attention focused on music. At the age of seven, he picked up a guitar and began listening to songwriters. A few years later, he discovered Kris Kristofferson: “I didn’t know what he was singing about,” McMurtry related to Harrington, “but I liked the way the words ran together, so maybe that had something to do with me wanting to be a songwriter.”
Academic achievement in high school earned McMurtry a job as a teacher’s aide in Madrid, Spain, in the summer of 1980, but when he returned in the fall to attend the University of Arizona, he began to lose focus. He took a few creative writing courses, but found, as he explained to Harrington, that “writing prose seems to be more of a chore—it requires more of an attention span—whereas with songs you can try to bring it all in and not waste any words.”
So McMurtry began attending classes less, playing his guitar in the coffeehouses and bars around the university more. He eventually left college altogether, migrating to Talkeetna, Alaska, to play music in a roadhouse diner one summer, only to drift back to his father’s ranch outside Archer City, Texas, where he spent time scraping and repainting the outside of the ranch and adding to the scrap pile of images and song lyrics begun when he was 18. “Luckily I never threw out the
Appeared in film Daisy Miller, 1974; served as teacher’s aide in overseas educational program, Madrid, Spain, 1980; performed in coffeehouses, bars, and diners in Tucson, AZ, Talkeetna, AL, and San Antonio, TX, 1980s; appeared in television miniseries Lonesome Dove, 1989; released debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, Columbia, 1989.
Awards: One of six winners of Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Contest, Kerrville, TX, 1987.
Addresses: Home —Austin, TX. Record Company — Columbia Records, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.
pile,” he told Harrington. “Sometimes I’ll find an idea I wrote down six or seven years ago and turn it into a song now, where I didn’t have the wherewithal to do it then.”
In 1987 McMurtry consolidated a few ideas from his scrap pile and entered the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival’s New Folk Contest. He was named one of six winners. (Past winners include Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Michelle Shocked.) With the contacts he made during the festival, McMurtry considered relocating to Nashville to become a country songwriter. At this time, McMurtry’s father was working on a screenplay with John Cougar Mellencamp, so before he left, McMurtry gave his father a four-song tape to pass along to the Indiana-based rocker.
Even though Mellencamp and the elder McMurtry had known each other for over ten years, Mellencamp was less then enthusiastic about listening to the tape: “I’ve always thought of James at 16,” he related to Harrington. “In my mind he was always a little kid, he was Larry’s boy, so when he sent me a tape it was, ’Oh God, what’s this?’ I didn’t listen to the tape for three months.” But when he finally did, he listened to only one and a half songs before calling the president of CBS Records and offering to produce McMurtry’s first album.
What Mellencamp heard on McMurtry’s tape and what was eventually fleshed out on McMurtry’s 1989 debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland— recorded at Mellencamp’s Bloomington, Indiana, studio with members of his own band—was a melancholic vein coursing through image-laden songs that told of characters “caught between two worlds,” Stephen Holden observed in the New York Times, “one suffocating in its dreary familiarity, the other threateningly unknowable and uncontrollable.”
From the protagonist in the album’s title track, who returns to a small town from which he hopes to flee but may never have the chance, to the aimless drifter in “I’m Not From Here,” the characters are rootless and restless, bored or paralyzed by the morass of limited possibilities. “McMurtry’s people don’t have to cope with the large political and ecological problems that faced Woody Guthrie’s folks,” Ron Givens noted in Stereo Review, “which makes their despair all the more profound.”
One of the reservations a few critics had with Too Long in the Wasteland and his 1992 follow-up, Candyland, was McMurtry’s flat, even monotone, singing style, which they compared to Lou Reed and Bruce Cockburn. “With his dusty voice and limited range,” Ted Drozdowski wrote in a Rolling Stone review of Candyland, “McMurtry needs to vary his laconic delivery to ensure that his singing doesn’t fade to gray after a half-dozen songs.” Other critics, while acknowledging McMurtry’s often deadpan voice, noted the important relationship between what he sings and how he sings it. “His songs, brown and bare and windswept,” Karen Schoemer wrote in Interview, “are quietly devoid of desire.”
This attempt to present the world as it is, honestly and candidly, is more fully developed in Candyland. Although his characters are still detached, existing outside of any safe pale, McMurtry’s descriptions and images—a more subtle balancing of despair and desire—prevent a coarse, misanthropic reading. In “Hands Like Rain,” an old man looks to the sky and remembers the sustaining touch of a woman years before. “Pure poetry,” Nash wrote, “the song manages to distill a lifetime of hidden hope and longing in just a few lines.” And for the withdrawn, troubled woman in “Don’t Just Fade Away,” who is “out past the breakers, drifting fast,” McMurtry gives voice to a narrator who tries to explain, as Schoemer pointed out, that “relief is as close as her lover’s outstretched hand.”
Too Long in the Wasteland (includes “Angeline,” “I’m Not From Here,” “Painting by Numbers’ and “Too Long in the Wasteland”), Columbia, 1989.
Candyland (includes “Candyland,” “Hands Like Rain,” “Storekeeper,” “Don’t Just Fade Away,” and “Where’s Johnny”), Columbia, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1989.
Interview, June 1991.
Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1989; June 2, 1992.
Musician, December 1989.
New York Times, August 20, 1989; June 21, 1992.
Rocket (Seattle), September 1992.
Rolling Stone, October 19, 1989; September 17, 1992.
Stereo Review, December 1989; October 1992.
Time, August 12, 1991.
Washington Post, August 27, 1989; July 19, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1992.
"McMurtry, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mcmurtry-james
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