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McMurtry, James

James McMurtry

Singer, songwriter

For the Record

Selected discography


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 whats 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, McMurtrys 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 familys huge piles of books just something to cover the walls with, he told Richard Harrington of the Washington Post

McMurtrys 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 didnt 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 teachers 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 choreit requires more of an attention spanwhereas 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 fathers 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

For the Record

Born James Lawrence McMurtry, March 18, 1962, in Fort Worth, TX; son of Larry McMurtry (a novelist) and an English professor. Education: Attended University of ArizonaTucson, early 1980s.

Appeared in film Daisy Miller, 1974; served as teachers 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 Ill find an idea I wrote down six or seven years ago and turn it into a song now, where I didnt have the wherewithal to do it then.

In 1987 McMurtry consolidated a few ideas from his scrap pile and entered the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festivals 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, McMurtrys 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: Ive always thought of James at 16, he related to Harrington. In my mind he was always a little kid, he was Larrys boy, so when he sent me a tape it was, Oh God, whats this? I didnt 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 McMurtrys first album.

What Mellencamp heard on McMurtrys tape and what was eventually fleshed out on McMurtrys 1989 debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland recorded at Mellencamps Bloomington, Indiana, studio with members of his own bandwas 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 albums 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 Im Not From Here, the characters are rootless and restless, bored or paralyzed by the morass of limited possibilities. McMurtrys people dont have to cope with the large political and ecological problems that faced Woody Guthries 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 McMurtrys 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 doesnt fade to gray after a half-dozen songs. Other critics, while acknowledging McMurtrys 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, McMurtrys descriptions and imagesa more subtle balancing of despair and desireprevent 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 Dont 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 lovers outstretched hand.

Selected discography

Too Long in the Wasteland (includes Angeline, Im Not From Here, Painting by Numbers and Too Long in the Wasteland), Columbia, 1989.

Candyland (includes Candyland, Hands Like Rain, Storekeeper, Dont Just Fade Away, and Wheres 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.

Rob Nagel

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