James McMurtry has been celebrated by some of the greatest writers alive today, from Stephen King and Jackson Browne to Jason Isbell and John Mellencamp. Those accolades began with his debut LP in 1989, Too Long in the Wasteland, and they've continued throughout his career.
With his 10th studio album out Friday (Aug. 20) — The Horses and the Hounds, his first with New West Records — the songwriter proves he still has countless stories to share and plenty of rock 'n' roll left to make. Though he's not playing as many shows across the country right now, he's still ensuring some type of live music is offered to the world, via YouTube livestreams.
"It’s sort-of a twisted Mr. Rogers shtick, which I kind of like," McMurtry tells The Boot with a faint chuckle. "I think I might have to keep doing it; I can see myself continuing.
"We all need to work on the livestream thing and really make it into an art form," he adds. "I haven’t gotten that far yet. It’s enjoyable and entertaining for some people, but I haven’t really elevated it to 'art' yet. It needs to be done."
Between his livestreams and The Horses and the Hounds, fans have more McMurtry music in their lives than they have in recent memory. And as we've been spinning the new record over and over, we've been mesmerized by the words McMurtry weaves together over 10 tracks.
While one could argue that every single line on a McMurtry album is worth dwelling on, below are five of the most powerful lyrical moments on The Horses and the Hounds:
"I was thinking 'bout you crossing Southern Alberta / Canola fields at harvest time / Look like tumbleweeds all raked up into rows / Brown, rusty contour lines ..."
"Canola Fields" was the first song McMurtry released from The Horses and the Hounds, and it's also the opening track on the LP. It sets the stage for what's to come and serves as a beautiful bridge between McMurtry's last album, Complicated Game, and this one. While the entire song is worthy of unpacking and examining, there is something deeply moving about an artist creating an image of "brown, rusty contour lines;" there may be no greater feat of storytelling on this album than those four simple words.
"But I wouldn't get down on my knees on a bet / I'm near enough to Jesus as I ever want to get / Seeking salvation isn't part of my general plan ..."
McMurtry is not one to shy away from any topic, and he's certainly spent some time singing about faith, God or some type of higher power over the years. The chorus of "If It Don't Bleed" finds him encouraging the listener to "save your prayers for yourself," but it's these particular lyrics that stand out as some of his most powerful and eloquent words sung about faith. It's not an indictment or criticism, but rather, a clear and concise statement for where he — or at least the song's narrator — stands.
"Half a section in the short grass at the foot of the plains / Grows broomweed in the dry times, ragweed when it rains / It's all she's got left that the lawyers don’t claim / Jackie does her damn best, never one to complain ..."
This entire track is a story of struggle and sorrow, and McMurtry captures all of that in the opening verse, laying a perfect foundation for what's to come. The title character is a hard worker, doing everything she needs to do just to get by, even as life throws obstacles in front of her. And when is the last time you heard a song that includes broomweed and ragweed in the lyrics? McMurtry is a master.
"I rode right on off the world, just like it never mattered none / There wasn't nothing but me and the hurt, and the biting cold and the heft of that gun / In the pocket of a sheepskin coat, moonlight in a madman’s eye / For the unfairness of it all, surely something had to die ..."
We're going to offer this up to the universe and hope someone in Hollywood receives it: Turn "Decent Man" into a movie. It may be the best Western tale written in the 21st century, and it's only five minutes long. It's a song that demands repeated listening, and one that will break your heart over and over again. The heartbreak in the decision the main character makes is wrapped up in the tragedy of the lyrics: "For the unfairness of it all, surely something had to die."
"Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call"
"Georgia license Code B restriction / Can't drive 'less I got my specs on / Double negative's proper diction / In this North Florida redneck lexicon / Ain't nothing but Fox News fiction on / Nobody's showing the game I'm betting on / How're they gonna build a wall with no Mexicans anyway?"
McMurtry doesn't necessarily set out to write protest or political songs, but he commands the space when he does. And while "Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call" is far from a protest song — "Operation Never Mind" on The Horses and the Hounds lives up to that moniker, though — this verse highlights McMurtry's political leanings, his dry humor and his sarcastic nature when it comes to what's happening in the world today. This whole song finds McMurtry doing what he does best, but these specific lyrics showcase his timeless talent.