Fiction as Composites of Reality: A Conversation with James McMurtry.

Featured Image By Mary Keating Bruton


Words By Alyson Lamoso Writer/Interviewer



Image By Mary Keating Bruton


For each of the character-driven worlds in his song catalogue, by his own account, James McMurtry is just the narrator. “There are snippets of my life in [the songs] but if I tried to write a straight
autobiography, nobody would hear it. I wouldn’t want to hear it. It bores me.”

James offered highlights of his approach to songwriting when we caught up with him ahead of his upcoming February 2024 Florida dates, and of his evolution as a working musician navigating the perils of corporate practices and unreliable music models during his decades-spanning career.


On the songwriting process:

“I hear a couple of lines and a melody in my head, and I try to envision who would have said that. From that, I can get a character and I can sometimes work backwards from the character to the story. And if I can knock that into verse-chorus structure, then I get a song. “It comes to me as lines and melody at the same time. I’ve done it piecemeal before where I’ll just put word to jams that we recorded. There was a while there when my rhythm section lived on either coast. We couldn’t really get together much so at the end of every tour during that time, I’d take two or three days and go in the studio, whether we had songs or not. Some of those instrumental jams turned into songs. The title track for the Saint Mary of the Woods record was this long, crazy jam. I put words into parts of it and then edited the whole jam down to a song. But that’s hard to do. I have a hard time putting the words to music. But if I get the words and the music together, it’s not so difficult.”

On the logistics of making a record:

“I brought in Ross Hogarth [to produce his tenth, and most recent album, The Horses and The Hounds]. We recorded in Los Angeles at Jackson Browne’s studios, Groove Masters. It’s the first time I ever recorded in L.A. I just wanted the experience and that’s where Ross is based, so that’s where we went. “It’s always good to get away from your home if you’re trying to track a record. You want everybody in a hotel, right there, so they’re out of their regular sphere. They’re not late for the session because they had to get the kids from school because they’re sick. That kind of thing. You don’t have regular life intervening. It’s all focused. It’s like going to summer camp. And, of course, the flip side is if you record at home, Austin’s much cheaper than having to house everybody. Austin’s a good place if you need an overdub part. I might do a mixture of the two on the next record, maybe track somewhere else and do the overdubs at home in Austin.”

On the touring business model:

“We make records when the tour draw starts falling off. The business model for us has flipped on its head since the 80s. In the late 80s, when I first started recording, you put out a record and you toured to support record sales in the hope that you sold enough records to recoup the production costs, and then you could earn some royalties and live off that. “That never worked out for me. My records were too expensive to make so they didn’t recoup but I got a toehold in the touring business. Later in the 90s, everything flipped around where Napster and Spotify pretty well-destroyed record royalties. That put us in a good position because then everybody was trying to get on the road. We learned how to profit off the road. For us, records, as much as being artworks, are also advertisements. We put out a record, you guys will write about us so that people know we’re coming to town. And then they buy some tickets and that keeps us going. When the draw falls off, it’s time to make a record. Then, we’re going to think about finishing some of these songs that I’ve started over the years. It’s just pressure. It’s an inspiration.”

On song inspiration:

“[Songs] just come from anywhere. I might see a road sign on the side of the road that points me in one direction. “Saint Mary of the Woods” was that way. I didn’t know what that was except we were touring in Indiana, and we had a day off to get to Chicago. I didn’t want to go through Gary, Indiana because they’ve got a terrible snowstorm. We took this strange route over by Terre Haute and went up the east bank of the Wabash, and there was a sign on the road that said, “Saint Mary of the Woods” and I didn’t know what that was. It lodged in my head and became a song later on. It turned out it’s actually the sister school to Notre Dame.”

On fiction vs. autobiography:

“Fiction is often composites of reality. My son told me that when he was 16. He said, ‘You can’t write a song about one girl. You got to have about five or six of them to kind of morph them together, so that you make the rhyme and beat, or scheme work.’ He is a singer-songwriter as well, and his wife is a brilliant cellist and a great songwriter herself.
“My father’s [novelist Larry McMurtry] people were all ranchers, farmers, stockmen. They didn’t even read for pleasure. They read for information, strictly. I don’t know where he got it. I think it’s more environmental, nurture more than nature. He never discouraged me from pursuing music. That helped. He’d broken the mold.”

On writing for another medium:

“I can do that, but it feels like a term paper to me. [Music] comes from listening to guys like Kristofferson and Prine when I was young. Most of my peers weren’t listening to those guys but that’s really where I got verse structure from. Of course, Kristofferson knew it from the printed page. He was a Rhodes scholar. He was writing it as poetry, I think, before it went in the song. I’m not sure of that but he has that sort of English major, tight verse structure.” What fans can expect in the next leg of the tour: “We usually do ‘Levelland.’ We tend to close with ‘[Too Long in the] Wasteland’ because it’s a good closer. They’ll hear some of the old stuff. If we have any new stuff, we’ll try to work that out because it’s getting to that point where we got to think about making another record and keep the thing going. “In this run, Skipper’s [Smokehouse] in Tampa, I really like. [Orlando’s] The Social is always pretty good.”

On preparing for the next album:

“I’ve had records that were complete and ready to go at that point that didn’t come out for another two years back when I was on Columbia Records. My second record was ready in 1990 and it came out in 1992 due to various corporate politics. You can’t tell. A record comes out when it comes out.”



Image By Mary Keating Bruton



Florida fans will get a chance to catch James McMurtry live on the following dates:

15 Feb 2024, The Moon, Tallahassee, FL
16 Feb 2024, The Social, Orlando, FL
17 Feb 2024, Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa, FL
18 Feb 2024, The Bier Hall at Intuition Ale Works, Jacksonville, FL
Tickets available HERE 





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