John Mellencamp said of James McMurtry back in 1989, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” Mellencamp experienced that gravitas firsthand when he co-produced McMurtry’s first album, Too Long in the Wasteland. Nearly 35 years later, McMurtry has become a deeply revered fixture in the Americana scene with that same keen sense of lyricism very much intact.
His latest record, The Horses and the Hounds, earned him a nomination for Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards—an honor he is no stranger to, having won in 2006 for both “We Can’t Make It Here” and the accompanying album, Childish Things. Across his career, the Texas native has amassed both critical and peer acclaim that few artists can boast.
American Songwriter caught up with McMurtry while at this year’s 30A Songwriters Festival—a five-day event dedicated to shining a spotlight on the art form’s biggest names—to discuss his songwriting journey, his earliest inspirations, and his latest record. Check out our conversation, below.
American Songwriter: Is there anyone in particular here at the festival that you’re excited to see?
James McMurtry: Don Dixon. He produced my third record. He’s around here somewhere and we’re playing text tag.
AS: Do you get a lot of co-writing done here? Is it a co-writing mecca?
JM: I don’t generally co-write. If someone gives me a line then I can go and write the song, but I don’t do the back and forth—sit in a room and try and write a song. I used to write with Fred Koller in Nashville in the ’80s. We wrote some stuff that was pretty cool—sounded like songs. But, nothing I ever co-wrote got cut.
AS: How do songs typically come together for you? What is that process like?
JM: I usually hear a couple of lines or a melody in my head. I’ll keep turning it over and if it keeps me up at night, then I will bother to finish the song.
AS: What is your journey as a songwriter? How did you get started?
JM: When I was a kid, I wanted to be Johnny Cash. The first concert I ever saw was Cash, I think I was seven. Kris Kristofferson was the first artist that was identified to me as a songwriter. I was about nine when “Me and Bobby McGee” came out and up until that time, I hadn’t put much thought into where songs came from. I thought they just fell out of the air. But, I saw Kristofferson play when I was nine. They looked like they were having such a good time that I thought, “well, I want to do that.”
AS: Is there a particular song or moment when you feel like you arrived as a songwriter?
JM: No, you never quite arrive. I think you’re always trying to get there.
AS: Do you remember the first song you wrote that you felt confident in?
JM: The first one I dared play for people became “Talkin’ at the Texaco.” We recorded that in Indiana in 1989. That was the first song I would play in my late 20s at beer garden gigs for a few bucks and free drinks. They mostly wanted covers. I learned a couple of Jimmy Buffett songs to play for the food and beverage guy, so they would hire me. Then I’d try and work a few originals into the set. I entered that into the Kerrville Folk Festival contest in ’87. I was among the winner’s circle for that. They had six winners, but they didn’t give out places. But you’d know who really won because that’s who they would invite back next year.
AS: Do you ever wish you could go back and edit some of your material?
JM: Yeah, and you can. My son was the one that told me I can always rewrite. You don’t have to sing the same words you recorded 20 years ago when you didn’t know what you were doing.
AS: Is there a particular song that comes to mind in that respect?
JM: Yeah “Off and Running” has a few trite filler lines that I need to get rid of. It hasn’t been played in years because there is a slight cringe factor there.
AS: What would be your advice for songwriters just starting out?
JM: Quit if you can. It’s a compulsion. If you can shake it then you’re probably not supposed to do it for a living.
AS: You’re most recent album is titled The Horses and the Hounds. What was the process of making that record?
JM: We recorded it in 2019, pre-COVID. We booked a session at Sunset Sound and we figured we could knock out what was left in a day or two. Then California shut down a week before the session was supposed to happen. It finally came out in 2021.
AS: Is there an overarching theme to that record?
JM: No, there never is. I just record what songs I can finish in time for the record.
AS: Is there one song that is a standout for you? What is the story behind it?
JM: “Jackie” comes to mind. I’ve been trying to kill off the equestrian woman that sneaks through my songs for years. I don’t remember what the seed for that was.
AS: Do you remember anyone giving you a piece of advice when you were first starting out that stuck with you?
JM: Fred Koller told me your songs have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That still feels true.
Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association