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Music / James McMurtry

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James McMurtry (born 1962) is an Alternative Country/"Americana" singer-songwriter from Fort Worth, Texas. His father, Larry, was an author of Western novels; the best-known of these by far is Lonesome Dove, and James acted in a small part when it was adapted into a mini-series.

McMurtry's songs tend to revolve around the trials of blue-collar life in Flyover Country; many of them lean towards the cynical, but there are exceptions, and even his darker work often has a streak of humor running through it. Despite some early collaboration with John Mellencamp and Dwight Yoakam, his work has never fit well with "mainstream" tastes in the country genre, possibly related to his unromantic portrayal of American society and his unwillingness to excuse its uglier side. However, like a (much) smaller-scale Johnny Cash, he enjoys crossover appeal among music fans who normally "don't go for country," and for some of the same reasons.


McMurtry is currently based in Austin, with his band The Heartless Bastards. His albums include:

  • Too Long in the Wasteland (1989)
  • Candyland (1992)
  • Where'd You Hide the Body (1995)
  • Saint Mary of the Woods (2002)
  • Childish Things (2005)
  • Just Us Kids (2008)
  • Complicated Game (2015)
  • The Horses and the Hounds (2021)

Tropes associated with James McMurtry's work include:

  • The Alleged Car: Drives one in "How'm I Gonna Find You Now." Among other issues, it has a rag instead of a gas cap.
  • The American Dream: Deconstructed, packed up, and shipped overseas in "We Can't Make It Here."
    • "Long Island Sound" treats the concept far more positively. Although the song's tone is definitely bittersweet, with the narrator reflecting on an old flame and possibly wondering what could have been if he'd stayed at home and made it work with her, he's still proud of the life he's made and the family he supports.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Definitely the case in "Lights of Cheyenne." "Copper Canteen" initially comes across like this, but there are hints that the couple do love each other, in a Tevye-and-Golde, "Well I take care of you don't I?" sort of way.
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  • Bears Are Bad News: The lyrics of "Slew Foot" show some grudging respect for the titular bear, but he's definitely not a creature you'd want to meet in the woods at night.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: "Choctaw Bingo" profiles several members of one. Thank God family reunions only come once a year...
    • The family in "State of the Union" is much smaller, but no less screwed up. It serves as a microcosm for the divisions in American society overall in The New '10s.
  • Comforting the Widow: Rumored to be the case with the bridge-tender's widow in "Copper Canteen."
    She's sure got the run of the men
    Out here where the pickings are thin
    And there's not much to do
  • Despair Event Horizon: Alice's unnamed sister in "Fireline Road" is well past it. Nobody can blame her, but the state still took her kids away.
  • Dirty Old Man: James himself plays this role in the video for "How'm I Gonna Find You Now," although it's a mild example. He (or "his character") seems content to nurse his beer and check out the bartender without doing anything untoward. The lyrics themselves, though, suggest a Stalker with a Crush...
  • Domestic Abuse: "Lights of Cheyenne." The narrator is definitely on the receiving end of it from her husband, but the strained relationships with their children suggest that he didn't stop there.
    • Hinted at in "Copper Canteen," although it may be meant as a joke.
      Honey don't you be yellin' at me when I'm cleanin' my gun
      I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season's done
  • Dead Sparks: "Bad Enough."
  • Dying Town: "We Can't Make It Here" portrays life in one.
  • Genre-Busting: Appears to be McMurtry's favorite hobby. Overall, Complicated Game is his most successful album so far, placing on the U.S. charts for folk, rock, and indie music, but not on the country charts. His next (and most recent) album, The Horses and the Hounds, has reached #29 on the country charts as of this writing.
  • Hillbilly Moonshiner: Uncle Slaton in "Choctaw Bingo," who "still makes whiskey 'cause he still knows how." He's graduated to cooking meth, though, because there's not enough money to be had selling moonshine.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: "Fireline Road" puts a very, very dark spin on this trope, arguably to the point of deconstructing it.
  • Kissing Cousins: Actively pursued by the narrator of "Choctaw Bingo."
  • New Old West: Several of his songs, but particularly "South Dakota" and "Lights of Cheyenne."
  • Nice Hat: McMurtry seems to own fedoras in several different colors. His "don't-give-a-damn" musical persona helps make the look work, avoiding the unfortunate connotations that that style has acquired in recent years.
  • Protest Song: "We Can't Make It Here" is a scathing critique of the American economic system, and the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots.
    I can see 'em all now, they haunt my dreams
    All lily-white and squeaky-clean
    They've never known want, they'll never know need
    Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed
    Their kids won't bleed in their damn little war
    And we can't make it here anymore
  • Racist Grandma: One of his most controversial lines, in "12 O'Clock Whistle."
    We're going through n----r town honey, lock your doors
    'Course that's not what we're supposed to call them anymore
  • Raging Stiffie: Referenced briefly in "Choctaw Bingo," with a memorable comparison to a "bowdark fence post."
  • Refuge in Audacity: In case you hadn't picked up on it yet, "Choctaw Bingo" lives here. Naturally, this makes it one of his most popular songs for live performances.
  • Scenery Porn: About half the lyrics of "Lights of Cheyenne."
  • Stalker with a Crush: As the title suggests, "How'm I Gonna Find You Now" is sung from this point of view.
  • Straw Character: The narrator and his brother in "State of the Union" may be treating each other this way. It's unclear how accurate the brother's portrayal as "a fascist" who'll "tell you it's tough to be white" is, or his dismissal of the narrator as an unmanly, college-educated "snowflake," but the point isn't how accurate these descriptions are—it's how divided the family has become.
  • Tall Tale: Some of the claims made about "Slew Foot" are, shall we say, implausible. A bear who "ain't never been caught, he ain't never been treed" is one thing; being able to run ninety miles an hournote  is quite another.
  • The War on Terror: Referenced in several songs from Childish Things, Just Us Kids, and Complicated Game.
  • Women Are Wiser: Discussed in "State of the Union," where the narrator's sister tries to limit or avoid conflict in an increasingly divided society, but tries to be prepared for when conflict is inevitable.
    Sister lit out 'fore the shouting got worse
    Went to Wednesday night prayer at the new Christian church
    With a cross on her neck and a nine in her purse
    She might be the wisest of us

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