Written by Jane Ponte
The Horses and the Hounds – Album Review
The Heights Theater – Houston, TX – 10/09/2021
James McMurtry has once again proven why he is a national treasure, and why Stephen King once called him “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” His new album, The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records), produced by long-time McMurtry collaborator Ross Hogarth, is chock-full of the stuff that continues to elevate McMurtry to cult hero status among his dedicated following and his music industry peers. Comprised of 10 tracks written by McMurtry, (with a co-write slipped in here and there for good measure) this new collection of songs is arguably his best work to date, and hearing him perform 7 of them last Saturday at the Heights Theater in Houston, along with several of his best-known classics, made for an outstanding evening of music served up by this revered and legendary performer in a comfortable venue with a great sound system.
Prior to Saturday’s show, I had the privilege to chat briefly with McMurtry about the new album and his songwriting process. I must admit that I was nervous to speak with him; I have admired his work for years and consider him to be one of the greatest songwriters ever to have written a song. His sense of rhyme and meter are impeccable, and his penchant and gift for storytelling through the characters he creates is something that many songwriters aspire to but most never fully achieve—at least, not at the level that McMurtry has. But after stammering my way through the first few questions with much trepidation, I found myself chatting with a thoughtful and gracious guy who thanked me when I complimented his most recent work and patiently answered my questions with candor, honesty, and humor.
Altogether, McMurtry has now released 12 stellar albums, including 2 live albums. All have received some form of critical acclaim, with one receiving a Grammy nod and another an American Indie Award for Best Americana Album. McMurtry gave me a little background on recording his new collection. “I made it in 2019. We did the basic tracks at Groove Masters in Santa Monica. That’s Jackson Browne’s place. We did that in June of 2019 and overdubbed off and on for the rest of the year because Ross had a pretty crazy schedule. We were just about to finish up keyboards when California shut down. We had a B3 session booked at Sunset Sound in LA but couldn’t do it because lockdown happened, so we had to spend some time recording the keyboards just kind of piecemeal. I recorded Bukka Allen here in Texas and then Ross recorded somebody else in LA. There’s several B3 players on this record, but once the lockdown happened then it really took some time to get finished up and then we had to spend the fall mixing, and everything was still shut down in the spring pretty much…I really don’t know why the August 2021 release date was decided upon, but it makes sense enough to me. It’s right before Grammy noms, so here we are.”
McMurtry also shared a bit about his songwriting process, admitting that he often needed a deadline to finish his songs. “I don’t write every day, I write when it’s time to make a record, and I generally make a record when the touring draw starts falling off. Because, you know, mostly we make money off the road now– we don’t make much money off record sales, really. So as far as my writing process goes, to write a song, I hear a couple of lines and a melody in my head, and I try to envision the character who would have said that, and from that I can get a story and I can shape it into song form. But no, I don’t sit down and write every day. What happened with this record was that I’d been talking to Ross about producing and I’d been struggling with these songs for a while, doing a rough demo every now and then, and then Ross finally called me and said ‘Hey, I can book Groove Masters in June. So, I’m gonna book the time and you’re gonna finish the songs,’ and so then I had a deadline, which sometimes is the way to do it. You know, that’s the way I did all my early records. I’d book the time and then do my homework on the school bus, as we say.”
The end result of McMurtry finishing his homework on that school bus this time around is nothing short of brilliant. His uncanny ability to turn a phrase, coupled with sublime storytelling and wry observations in every song are the cornerstones of most McMurtry classics, but much of this new record seems to have a fresh snap and sizzle to it, despite a couple of the songs featuring protagonists who are in the autumn or winter of their lives, or who live in rootsy, rural settings. The album features several Los Angeles-based session musicians, along with Texas guitar players David Grissom and Charlie Sexton, and Bukka Allen and Red Young, also from Texas, on keyboards. Harmonies and background vocals, supplied by Harmoni Kelley, Akina Adderley, Betty Soo and Randy Garibay Jr—all from Texas as well–also add a fresh dimension to the album. And McMurtry’s own vocals seem to soar on this record, much more so than in his past work. His familiar, craggy drawl still shines through, however, breathing believability and intensity into his oft-times downtrodden cast of characters.
Last Saturday’s performance started off with “Bayou Tortous,” from the 2008 album, Just Us Kids, followed by “Red Dress,” from 2002’s Saint Mary of the Woods,” but it was not long before McMurtry, accompanied by veteran bandmates Tim Holt (guitar, accordion), Darren Hess (drums), and Mike “Cornbread” Traylor (bass) was delving into his new material, starting with the first song from the new album, “Canola Fields.” The song, a favorite of mine, is equal parts nostalgia and hope, as the main character reminisces about an almost-but- not-quite relationship while driving past Southern Alberta’s golden canola fields, “about the same chartreuse as that ’69 bug/ you used to drive around San Jose.” Later, during harvest time, when the fields have been “raked up in rows,” the song’s protagonist reflects on that same relationship and a moment they shared “in a way-back corner of a cross town bus,” decades later. “Cashing in on a thirty-year crush/you can’t be young and do that,” the protagonist says, and I fully concur.
Interspersed between the new songs were some old favorites; “Choctaw Bingo” (complete with the hilarious extra “Aunt Rita” verse), “Childish Things,” “Levelland,” and the killer closing rocker, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” among several others. The lively audience would have likely gotten up and danced many times throughout the evening, had the venue’s layout lent itself to that kind of stuff and mask mandates not been in place. At one point between songs, an enthusiastic fan shouted out, “Sing it like ya mean it!!” No response from McMurtry at that time, but several minutes later, while tuning his guitar, he looked up from his task and wryly deadpanned, “I’m gonna tune it like I mean it,” and went back to his work. The comment was lost on quite a few audience members, but I caught it. Very funny indeed. (Over the years, I’ve learned that catching classic McMurtry-isms often require one to be at least half as observant as he is. Blink, and you just might miss something.) And while it has become a time-honored tradition of sorts for fans to (loudly) sing along to the McMurtry’s best-known songs, Saturday’s crowd seemed to be equally receptive to his new offerings; “Jackie,” “If It Don’t Bleed,” “Decent Man,” “Operation Never Mind,” first encore “Vaquero,” and my personal favorite, “Blackberry Winter,” which was a moving acoustic rendition, sans microphone or backing band, from the edge of the stage, with only his guitar. The captivated crowd sang along with that one, too. Leave it to James McMurtry to write a song about talking a lonely, disillusioned, suicidal woman off the ledge only to have the crowd join in on the chorus. Absolutely goosebump-inducing, and easily my favorite moment of the night.
All things considered, McMurtry has more than risen to the occasion and achieved a personal best with The Horses and the Hounds. The 10 story-songs contained within are exactly what you’d expect from McMurtry – a perfect blend of vivid imagery, wry humor, social commentary, and grumpy characters with first-world problems, “I can’t read the menu ‘cause damn I keep losing my glasses…”. I knew I was going to love this album after my initial listen, when I heard too many jaw-dropping lyrical phrases to count in one go-round. But after hearing his character in the title track call a romantic rival a “candy-coated clown,” I knew I was traveling in quintessential McMurtry territory. Rich with alliteration, sardonic observations, and maybe an upgrade or two included for the journey, The Horses and the Hounds is a great ride into the life and times of the vivid and intense characters that McMurtry has created on this masterful release. For a guy who swears that his characters are fictional, I can’t help but wonder if a bit of McMurtry himself has been skillfully woven into these songs to give his listeners a glimpse of how growing older has only served to make him better and wiser. Only a seasoned veteran of the craft could pull it off with such cleverness, and as the song says, “you can’t be young and do that.”
~ Jane Ponte