A biography (by L.E.Brad)
James McMurtry is one artist who has earned his solid singer/songwriter/guitarist reputation. Critics, peers and music aficionados have long praised him as being among the strongest songwriters of his generation. His works, which range from atmospheric ballads to no-holds-barred rockers, are populated by world-weary souls often longing for something different, if no better, than what they're now enduring. Perhaps in part because of his powerful reputation as a lyricist, coupled with his stirring vocal style, McMurtry is often not given his due as a guitarist. Though not one to stoop to flash just for the sake of effect, he can rip forth with a flurry of fat-toned notes when the material demands it. In the next breath, he'll frame a tender composition with poignant lead lines. He tends to travel with half a dozen or so guitars, which offers him a wide palate of tones and tunings from which to choose.
The Heartless Bastards (not to be confused with the Ohio-based Fat Possum recording artists of the same name) are McMurtry's rhythm section of nearly a decade. McMurtry’s Bastards include bassist/harmony vocalist Ronnie Johnson and drummer Daren Hess. The trio’s sets have been honed to Bowie-blade sharpness by their demanding touring schedule and their steady hometown gigs in Austin, Texas. Johnson and Hess are journeymen musicians in their own rights, sharing decades of solid band time between them.
James Lawrence McMurtry was born in Fort Worth, Texas on March 18, 1962. He grew up primarily in Leesburg, Virginia, a place he describes as being neither truly northern nor southern in nature. He was still a child when he saw revelatory concerts courtesy of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. McMurtry also cites Little Feat and The Band as being among his early influences.
To read more about the author's Texas music based literature, visit www.lebrady.com. Read Brady's recent interview with McMurtry.
Given his first guitar at the age of seven, McMurtry soon dedicated himself to mastering the instrument. He was writing song fragments by his mid-teens. While studying English and Spanish at University of Arizona in the '80s, he began his songwriting in earnest. In Tucson, he played with a loose affiliation of musicians and started his performance career as a soloist at the Sawmill Café, an Old Pueblo beer garden. After traveling a spell and earning his keep painting houses, tending bar and dabbling in acting, McMurtry found himself back in Texas, working in San Antonio's entertainment district. His first national recognition came in 1987 when he garnered an award in the New Folk songwriting category at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
McMurtry's novelist/screenwriter father, Larry, passed his son's demo tape to Indiana rocker John Mellencamp when the two were working together on the film "Falling From Grace." McMurtry had hopes that Mellencamp might record one of his tunes. Instead, Mellencamp ended up producing McMurtry's strong Columbia Records debut, Too Long the Wasteland (1989). Later, McMurtry was asked to play alongside Mellencamp, John Prine, Dwight Yoakam and Joe Ely in a one-off band for the "Falling From Grace" soundtrack, which also produced the single, "Sweet Suzanne." The Buzzin’ Cousins, as the band was later christened, was nominated in 1992 by the Country Music Asscociation in the vocal event of the year category.
McMurtry made two more albums for Columbia, Candyland (1992) and Where'd You Hide the Body (1995). In 1996 he left Columbia and joined Sugar Hill Records, where he made a trio of albums. The American Indie Award-winning album it had to happen arrived in 1997. Walk Between the Raindrops came in 1998, followed in 2002 by his hardest rocking studio effort to date, St. Mary of the Woods.
In spring 2004, McMurtry joined Compadre Records for the release of Live in Aught-Three. The album was recorded in the spring of 2003 at the Zephyr Club in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, 12th and Porter in Nashville, Tennessee and John Barleycorn’s in Wichita, Kansas. Capturing McMurtry, Johnson and Hess at the top of their game, the album was widely praised as being one of the best live releases in years.
McMurtry's long-anticipated seventh studio album, Childish Things, is out in the fall of 2005. The album has the usual tasty mix of McMurtry compositions, seasoned with a hard-scrapple southern classic, "Slew Foot" (performed here with help from former Buzzin' Cousins partner, Joe Ely), and the rollicking "The Old Part of Town," originally recorded for a Peter Case tribute album to benefit the Hungry for Music charity. McMurtry's production is crisp and warm, as are his lead and harmony vocal turns. Alongside his tasteful guitar work, McMurtry can also be heard on harmonica, organ, piano, and maybe a mandolin woven into the layered mix of six-strings on "Bad Enough."
McMurtry's son Curtis makes his saxophone debut on the loose and rootsy "See the Elephant," and the road-tripping twanger "Pocatello." McMurtry's
longtime collaborator, guitarist David Grissom, delivers on "Pocatello," "Bad Enough" and the sensuous "Restless." Also contributing are McMurtry's soundman and sometimes supporting guitarist, Tim Holt, and Randy Garibay Jr., who played bass in McMurtry’s first touring band and provides backup vocals here as well as on previous McMurtry sessions. Keyboardist Bukka Allen, fiddler Warren Hood, trombonist John Blondell and bassist Chris Maresh round out the list of Childish Things contributors.
In the past, McMurtry's songs have frequently examined the U.S.A.'s social fabric, but he has said that he purposefully hadn't waded far into political waters. On Childish Things, he makes reference to middle-age guardsmen returning to duty in "Holiday" and boy soldiers leaving home for the first time in "See the Elephant." The album also includes McMurtry's statement on American decline - "We Can't Make it Here" - his most unabashedly political number yet. The song was originally released as a free download, complete with two radio-friendly bleeps of expletives, in the week prior to the 2004 presidential election. The song is included sans bleeps on Childish Things.
When not on the road, James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards can usually be found playing the Wednesday night/Thursday morning late show at the Continental Club, Austin's historic south side bar. Whether playing a wee-hours gig for the faithful or a heat-of-the-day festival slot for thousands, McMurtry and his band can be relied upon to deliver a powerful, no-nonsense set of roots rock 'n' roll.
~ L.E.Brady ~