James McMurtry Brian T. Atkinson photo

Let’s face it, I have a thing for great songwriters, ones that can nail you with a quick turn of a phrase or make you laugh or cry with mere words. Artists like that are true wordsmiths, people like John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Shawn Phillips, Phil Ochs or the late, great Bill Morrissey can pen intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics that ring with truth and honesty, that touch the heart as well as the mind. There is another gentleman that belongs in that hierarchy and one that is coming to Rockland’s Strand Theatre on March 22: the famed singer-songwriter James McMurtry. Quite a few years ago, I had the opportunity to chat briefly with him and afterwards wished I had had more time to get a little deeper interview, so when I discovered that he was returning to Maine to present material from his latest release, “The Horses and the Hounds,” I requested another phone interview. It was granted and I called him at home in Austin, Texas, and began our chat by asking him if it takes him a long time to work out songs so they fit together as smooth as they do.

McMurtry: Well, I work from a scrap pile and sometimes a song will be years from start to finish, but usually the process of finishing happens within the last couple of months before the recording. I kind of need a deadline to really bang it into shape (chuckle).

Q: A little bit of pressure never hurts.
McMurtry: Yeah.

Q: This was a 2021 release; are you working on something new?
McMurtry: Uh, not really because my tour draw is still holding up. When it starts to fall off is usually when I have to record, because the business model is flipped on its head since the ’90s. We used to tour to support sales, that was the idea, anyway. Now we make records to support tour dates because we put a record out and you guys will write about us, and we get some people in the seats. There are no record sales anymore and the royalties from streaming and downloads are not much, because there’s no mechanical product.

Q: Having been doing this for as long as I have, I’ve got some nice vinyl, but with streaming and digital downloads, you know, I find I really miss a physical product to hold.
McMurtry: Yeah, I like the CD myself.

Q: (Chuckle) I have a few of those, as well. Now, as far as 2021 goes, I imagine the pandemic put a stop to a lot of what you do for a living, as far as touring and like that goes.
McMurtry: It also delayed the release of the record. We tracked that in 2019 and did most of the overdubs in late 2019. We were just about to finish up keyboards in early 2020 and California locked down, and we had to cancel the sessions. We had to do work-arounds for it, so I recorded some guys down here in Texas.


Q: Sounds like it took a toll on all parts of life at that point.
McMurtry: Yeah.

Q: It must be nice getting back out on the road again, though.
McMurtry: Yeah, I didn’t think I was going to miss it, because my back didn’t hurt from riding in the van for a couple of weeks (chuckle), but I learned how to livestream and kind of got used to just sitting here and being home a lot, but when I finally did get back on the road, I’d come home after that and realize that I did miss it and that I need it for sanity.

Q: Well, one thing about it, when you’re in front of a crowd you get instant gratification which is kind of hard when live-streaming.
McMurtry: Um yeah (pause), it’s not so much that, most of touring is logistics. My driver’s getting four guys and a bunch of gear from Point A to Point B with enough energy to do a good show, and then do that six nights a week and travel on the seventh night.

Q: Good Lord (chuckle), I can see why you needed a break after that.
McMurtry: (Laughter) Well, you know — I mean it’s profitable to do that, and if you keep it stripped down, … so that’s what we do.

Q: Oh, so you have a band with you for this show in Rockland?
McMurtry: No, not on this run. No, this is a solo fly-out. I’m flying into Newark and renting a car and driving around for a week-and-a-half, then flying home. But I don’t fly a band anymore, and there are some venues, like theaters, that are better done solo, I think. It’s hard to mix a band in a theater. I mean, if you’ve got a band in a theater you either have to play really quiet or really loud (laughter), because the sound really bounces around, so less is more. And if it’s just one guy up there with a guitar you can work with the mid-range dynamically.

Q: Have you performed at the Strand before?
McMurtry: Yeah, I have.


Q: I would like to return to the subject of songwriting, seeing you’re performing solo, do you compose your songs on the guitar?
McMurtry: I usually do that in my head at the wheel. I mean, I’ll get a guitar later on and start putting it together and see what key it likes. But I’ll get a melody and lyrics and just play with them as I’m driving down the road. And then there are songs that I sweat over and actually sit at a table and work on until I get stuck, and then I put them in the scrap pile to work on later when I understand what the song’s about.

Q: So you do band tours and solo tours. Do you prefer one over the other?
McMurtry: For a lengthy tour I’d rather have a band, because the energy is sort of more circular — it’s not just you and the audience. Going solo tires me out more. I can do solos for about a week (chuckle), and then I start to really wear out.

Q: Is there anything, sir that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
McMurtry: (Laughter) Well, nothing comes to mind except, “Show up and have a good time, if you’re interested.” jamesmcmurtry.com


Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at luckyc@myfairpoint.net if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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