ALBUMS: A Better Built Dog and Pony Show

With The Horses and The Hounds, James McMurtry asserts his everyman attitude

James McMurtry (Image: Conqueroo)

Populism has always strived within the realms of popular music, beginning with such esteemed folk laureates as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and their guitar-strumming brethren.

In more recent times, the mantle’s been carried by another breed of folk hero — musicians like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and John Fogerty — each an artist turned Everyman who was able to sum up the feelings and frustrations of ordinary individuals and turn them into anthems that anyone, regardless of their environs or social standing, could appreciate and admire.

More recently, a new breed of singer / songwriter has made it their mission to connect in a deeper way, sharing both triumph and tragedy in equal measure. Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Amy Speace, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nile, Hayes Carll and RB Morris have taken their own roughshod experiences and projected them onto a wider platform that effortlessly translates their tales to the satisfaction of fans and followers. Honesty and humility reside at the core of their convictions, helping to make their impact all the more emphatic.

Artist: James McMurtry 

Album: The Horses and The Hounds

Label: New West Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

Add James McMurtry to that list of luminaries. The son of the legendary Western novelist Larry McMurtry, he clearly comes about his talents quite naturally. Yet, his songwriting skills are more than a matter of effortlessly ingrained talent. He’s been venturing along his own career path for well over 30 years. And while he might not be as widely recognized as some, his songwriting skills and anecdotal artistry elevate him to a special plateau all his own. His albums offer an unblemished view of hard luck heroes and tattered troopers, each intent on making sense of their circumstances, even while traversing the divide between hope and happenstance. 

McMurtry’s latest album, The Horses and the Hounds, offers yet another striking example. A belated successor to his last outing, 2015’s Complicated Game, it’s a stark reflection of a grim reality affecting those attempting to discern a clear sense of purpose and possibility.

James McMurtry The Horses and The Hounds, New West Records 2021

“Now it’s all I can do just to get out of bed. There’s more in the mirror than there is up ahead,” McMurtry insists on the swaggering and assertive “If It Don’t Bleed,” one of several songs that find him taking the role of a rebel in search of an actual cause. It’s a theme that’s purveyed throughout, from the darkly defiant “Operation Never Mind” to the stirring yet steadfast “Vaquero” and the riveting title track as well. McMurtry casts himself in the role of a decidedly cynical good ‘ole boy, unapologetic and impatient, but shorn of any hint of posturing or pretense. His verses ring with both resolve and reflection, and it’s that dusty, defiant attitude that colors each of these emphatic narratives. “If the food don’t kill me, then the alcohol will,” he insists so tellingly on “What’s the Matter,” another example of his downcast diatribes. 

Still, for all his laments, McMurtry comes across as a decidedly assertive individual, purveying a sound that sometimes brings to mind the relentless resolve of Warren Zevon and the irascible persona of Lou Reed. His voice conveys a certain cynicism that often elevates his lyrics to the level of critical commentary. That’s especially true on songs such as “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” and “What’s the Matter,” each offering evidence of both irritation and arrogance within the context of everyday encounters.

While McMurtry’s mercurial attitude remains mostly intact throughout, The Horses and the Hounds succeeds mainly on the basis of its honesty and insight. In the end, what better credentials could anyone ask for?


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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