Interview: James McMurtry Looks Back on 15 Years of ‘Saint Mary of the Woods’
"I just try to get through the next day and the next week. I don't take much time to reflect on milestones. I forgot about this one."
The "one" James McMurtry is talking about is the 15th anniversary of Saint Mary of the Woods, which originally hit the streets on Sept. 17, 2002. It was the Americana luminary's sixth studio album, and his first in nearly four years.
"Nobody wanted to produce the album, that's why I produced Saint Mary," he tells The Boot. "The way it started, there was a studio in Austin that was an ADAT [Alesis Digital Audio Tape] studio. It was an odd little format ... it's like VHS now ... but it was cheap. We'd come off the road and go in the studio for a couple of days whether we had songs or not. A lot of the time we were just jamming."
We'd come off the road and go in the studio for a couple of days whether we had songs or not. A lot of the time we were just jamming.
In-between those jam sessions, McMurtry was learning what it meant to produce a record, and to produce it cheaply. Over the years, he's always entered the studio with a producer; his first two studio albums were helmed by John Mellencamp, Where'd You Hide the Body was produced by Don Dixon, and his next two LPs were handled by Lloyd Maines.
"The studio in Austin, Flashpoint, was really flexible," McMurtry recalls. "We could get into the studio when we needed to. Yeah, we were recording to ADAT, but they had a really nice old Neve console, too, so it was all to our liking."
Out of those jams emerged a couple of songs, including the title-track.
"I actually got the title from a tour," McMurtry says. "We were on the road in Indiana and there was a terrible snowstorm. We had to get from Bloomington to Chicago, which isn't all that far when it's not snowing. We didn't want to go through Gary because we knew that town was completely shut down."
So, instead of going through Gary, McMurtry and the boys decided to go to Terre Haute and up the Wabash River. It was there that he saw a sign that said "Saint Mary of the Woods."
"I didn't know what it was," he recalls. "I didn't know it was a school — I thought it might be a church. That became the title for the song, and then the title for the album. But that song and "Broken Bed," both of them are results from the three of us — drummer Daren Hess and bassist Ronnie Johnson — in the studio jamming around."
As for his production chops, McMurtry wanted to make sure there wasn't too much that got in the way of the music.
"You know, I don't think I approached the sound all that differently from my previous albums," he says, "but I didn't use as many extra parts. That meant my guitars never got buried. To be honest, I'm not enough of an audiophile to know much about the sound ... I get it in the ballpark and then let the engineers take it from there."
Though only two tracks came out of spontaneous jams in the studio — the rest were written outside and then brought in — McMurtry tells The Boot that he has a closet full of ADATs that will likely never see the light of day.
"I guess I'll never hear it again," he laments, "though you can actually get those machines pretty cheap. We captured quite a few hours, the ADAT I have would fill up an average-sized chest of drawers. We did a lot of jams that never resulted in completed songs. Probably the coolest music from those sessions will never be heard."
Probably the coolest music from those sessions will never be heard.
From Flashpoint, McMurtry loaded a car full of the ADAT and drove from Austin to North Hollywood to his friend Ross Hogarth's American Studios.
"We bounced all of that ADAT to Pro Tools and then mixed it to one-inch analog because American had a one-inch machine," he explains. "One-inch was really rare at that time — half-inch was the industry standard. We mixed it analog and then shipped it across the country to Bob Ludwig in Portland, Maine, to master it. He loves that one-inch tape because it has such good low end. And that became the record."
Saint Mary of the Woods was McMurtry's final album with Sugar Hill Records. Though he tossed around the idea of releasing a live disc, Sugar Hill had no interest in that.
"I sent some of the rough mixes of these songs to Barry Poss, who was still president of the label," he says. "He liked it and so they agreed to put it out."
Fifteen years later, Saint Mary of the Woods still features one of his most beloved tracks, the eight-and-a-half-minute album closer, "Choctaw Bingo."
"That was one of those songs I wrote before we went into the studio," McMurtry recalls. "I actually did it as a writing exercise. We were always going up and down Highway 69 and there was all that weird stuff along there. I did it just to see if I could put all that stuff in one song.
"It seems like a lot of those tours in that era either started or ended on Highway 69," he remembers. "It's interesting because at that time, we never played in Oklahoma, we just went through it to get to St. Louis or Kansas City."
As many who travel through the Midwest can relate to, though, most of the things McMurtry sings about in "Choctaw Bingo" have disappeared: "Choctaw Bingo is now Choctaw Casino," he says. "The gun shop in Tushka is gone. The lingerie store in Baxter Springs still exists but moved out to Missouri."
'Choctaw Bingo' might be growing forever.
The disappearance of things hasn't kept McMurtry from writing additional lyrics to the song and singing the new verses at concerts.
"There is a lot of new stuff that's come up, too," he admits, "like Red River Rehab and all these great big ol' billboards. I might go up that road next month and see something new that I have to put in the song. It might be growing forever."
"Choctaw Bingo" will continue to grow inside the studio, too, as McMurtry tells us he actually recorded a new version of it for Lagunitas Brewing Company.
"They didn't like the production," he says without giving any hint as to when fans will hear it, "but that just means we're going to have to do it again at some point."
While fans love it, when McMurtry is asked what his favorite Saint Mary tune is, the answer isn't "Choctaw Bingo" — but the response comes quick.
"'Out Here in the Middle' is my favorite," he tells The Boot. "There's nothing sloppy about that song. [David] Grissom's guitar solo just kicks it out of the park, too."
Truth be told, there isn't much sloppy about any of the songs on Saint Mary of the Woods. Whether he'd admit it or not, that's likely due to the fact that McMurtry was wearing the producer hat, and even more than that, he knew that to get the feel he wanted for the record, he needed his band to be rocking on all cylinders.
"I just wanted to capture the sound that existed when we were greased up," McMurtry explains. "We usually went in right after a tour. We'd come home, get one day of rest, and then go in. We'd be clicking."
Fortunately, that was enough to create one of McMurtry's finest albums of his career.