Into the Woods with James McMurtry

“. . . it seem[s] to me that James is encamped in some laboratory far out in the country, where art burbles and gurgles, getting made, getting fabricated, getting dreamed, and seeking release into the world—always seeking release into the world.”


From Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State by Rick Bass. Copyright © 2021. University of New Mexico Press, 2021.


Hunting Wild Turkeys, Great Songs, and Wide Open Spaces


When I step off the twin-prop plane in Wichita Falls, Texas, and into the late-day heat of spring, wind blasting forty miles an hour, the first thing I hear is a loud and live rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by what sounds like a marching band. Wichita Falls is home to Sheppard Air Force Base, one of the busiest airfields in the US Air Force. The band is practicing, is all—it’s no special occasion—but then the Warthogs go screaming past, and James McMurtry drives up in his old Ranger pickup, his wild Jesus hair silhouetted by the westering sun, and I get it instantly. This isn’t just something he sings about—the heartland, rural values, hard choices, wars, politics—it’s his world, his milieu.


Known best perhaps for his hard-rocking, driving-beat, social-protest songs, McMurtry has prodigious talents that exist far beyond the one-trick-pony stance of the angry troubadour. It’s hard to articulate what’s unique about his songs, but you know them the instant you hear them, not unlike a broad chain of deep-voiced male Southern white independent songwriting folk-country rockers with great guitar licks, great voices, great minds: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Joe Ely. Gruff and gravelly in tone, energetic guitar, gold-standard lyrics—there isn’t any fluff anywhere. My own personal McMurtry favorite is “Holiday,” an extended ballad about the stresses and expectations upon modern families to uphold traditions, setting out on the road in inclement weather, determined to have a good time, a time of family unity. The story would be touching on that level alone, but with each new stanza, the stakes are raised.


He’s a traveling musician these days—he has been for over twenty years—playing about 150 shows a year, with a weekly Wednesday night gig at the Continental Club in Austin. It’s a tough go, even in the best of times; it’s a tough go now. Sometimes he travels with his band (a drummer, bass player, and sound man/guitarist); other times he’s solo. His work has been influenced by other Texas legends—Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson—but his songs are unmistakably his own. Writer Stephen King says, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”


In some things—his guitar work, for instance—he’s precise: just so, almost cautious, striving for perfection. In other things—such as the interior of his old truck—he’s a little less so. Priorities. Loose change sprawls on the floor and car seats. Split plastic cups crinkle underfoot, receipts flutter, empty plastic water bottles roll like bowling pins. He drinks a lot of water, probably between one and two gallons a day, as if trying to quench some burning inside.


His paternal great-grandfather moved to Archer County from Missouri in the 1880s; his grandfather said that at the turn of the twentieth century, there were “three mesquite trees” in the whole county. Then the mesquite swarmed over due to the white culture’s overenthusiastic suppression of all wildfires. The mesquite destroyed rangeland by crowding out grasses, once a valuable thing. Then there was a big play for oil, but it’s going away; the last of the oil is way deep. Now the mesquite is the valuable thing because it provides cover for deer and turkeys, which allows landowners to lease their land for hunting.


Landowners are locking up their land, folks he refers to as “the high-fence guys,” trying to keep deer on their land like livestock, rather than wild animals that are free to come and go. He doesn’t like it but he drives on, steady and easy. If you’re wondering whether he’s related to the writer Larry McMurtry, he is; Larry’s his dad. I’m here to talk to James about music, not his father’s writing, but I can’t help but think of the title, Horseman, Pass By.


We’re driving straight out to the Langford ranch, owned now by his dad and Aunt Judy and Aunt Sue, to scout for turkeys; to listen for them going to roost, so we’ll know better where to set up and hunt in the morning. He doesn’t rhapsodize over the land’s beauty—the outrageousness of an arid land made so briefly green—but anyone can see that the land fulfills him. He points out the scissor-tail flycatchers swooping along the road and notes that when they show up, it means there won’t be any more freezes. Likewise, the newly emergent leaves on the mesquite trees, the last to bud out.


I’m surprised by how much he talks about his grandfather Jeff, who evidently threw a pretty big shadow. Hell, his father, Larry, casts an immense shadow in Texas. I imagine it can’t always have been easy, being James, Son of Larry, but he seems to have figured it out.



We park and wander the woods looking for tracks, or feathers, and listening for gobbling. There’s nothing but a high howling wind. James points out a creek that gets real high once in a while. He says that in the old days there were a couple of times when the waters would rise so quickly and so high they would cut off the cattle from their main pasture. His dad would have to ride over and get them and push them back across, swimming. It was dangerous business, he says, because cow ponies in Archer County didn’t have much practice swimming. A cowboy drowned, over on the North Fork.


“I always wondered why they didn’t put a wire gate on the south fence, run the cows across the neighbor’s pasture and onto the county road where there’s a bridge over the creek. I’ve never tried to make cows cross a bridge, but I’ll bet they’d follow a pickup with a broken sack of cottonseed cake on the tailgate.”


He’s just visiting, pointing out the intricacies of his home, but as writers are sometimes wont to do, I can’t help but remember that statement and wonder if it’s not a subconscious comment that speaks in some way to his life and his career: going his own way about fame, taking the long way around, avoiding the pitfalls that so often plague the progeny of big shadows.


He’s reckless yet precise. When I open the first gate, he asks to be sure that I close it in such a way that the cows can’t nose the clip open. He’s careful, too, with his guns. He shows me his old turkey-killing gun, a Browning Auto-5 twelve-gauge with a thirty-inch full-choked barrel, and an L. C. Smith that he says I’m welcome to shoot, but I decline, too broke for a license. He says Larry got a whole box of guns from an estate sale that he bought for the books alone. The guns came as an afterthought. James is definitely more interested in guns, says he’s not much of a reader; when he was a kid, he didn’t read that many books, though he says he was always stumbling over them, that they were stacked high everywhere.



The ranch is in a strange place geographically; within the span of only a few hundred yards, you can travel from lush green Southern hardwood creek bottoms, rife with birdsong and a soft green light filtering down through a canopy of hackberry and elm, and into an entirely different landscape, a long elevated ridge of caprock and mesa, with balanced rocks, tilted slabs, and the leavings of flint points. James shows me one site he’s found in a broad basin, an intensely open spot looking out over the prairie with the gravel packed firm from foot traffic. There are fragments of tepee rings here and there. The view is sublime, and it’s comforting and soothing to think of a culture nurturing itself, replenishing itself, year after year and generation after generation, in this one spot, staring out at what essentially is an unchanged landscape.


Just a little farther on there is a tilted mesa, a small mountaintop, where James says he’s never found any chips or other artifacts; perhaps the mountaintop wasn’t a gathering or socializing place, but a site for questing and isolation. We turn and wander back down toward the hardwoods. James says that when he and his band are on the road, most of the band members “always have their noses in books,” but he likes to drive and just look out at the countryside and think.


Our plan is to split up, to spread out and listen. James directs me to a tall camo-shrouded hunting tower from which I can see a great distance. I should be able to hear any turkeys gobbling right before they fly up to roost, and maybe even hear the distinctive thwapping of their powerful wings. We’ll mark the spot, then come back just before dawn and seek to call them down off the roost and into shotgun range (twenty-five, maybe thirty yards).


James disappears into the brush, toward the distant sound of gobbling. It’s incredibly windy up in the tower, and after a while I can’t hear the gobbling. I don’t know if the birds have hushed up or if they’re moving—perhaps toward us, perhaps away. It’s a pleasant place to just sit and rock. The branches swaddle the tower, making a hidden bower that creaks.


At dusk, a giant black boar comes trotting out of the thicket, coming from the exact place where James had entered the woods. He’s a big fellow, with tusks like a vampire’s fangs. I wait for what seems a long time but finally I see James’s head lamp coming toward me in the darkness, and from the gait of his approach, he does not appear to be hurrying. I tell him about the boar and show him the picture on my camera—kind of a fine-arts film-noir-looking image, a blurry black, bear-shaped animal galloping through the dusk—and James allows it might be good to take his pistol with him into the woods in the morning.


We drive back to the ranch house. Heat lightning is flashing to the west. For dinner James cooks a couple of giant venison steaks he’s been marinating all day, and we drink wine out of plastic yellow saucers from the pantry. There is very little furniture, but the shelves are all lined with books, top to bottom. If you are not a reader, there seems to be nothing to do here but play music or write. It’s a place to rest and sleep between hunts: Spartan, spare, elegant, secure. It appears not to have changed in a long time.


When I comment on the beauty of the simple plank table, James says it’s something Larry got in an auction. “Larry has an eye,” he says. “I don’t have an eye for aesthetics.” And I don’t think he’s being facetious or self-deprecating, just honest. I think his talents are not so visual or cinematic, but story-based—ballads and voice. His girlfriend, Kellie, describes his songs as often being “about people who are bent but not broken.” He gives these people the dignity of “picking them up and carrying them for a little while,” she says. Often, too, the songs are about ghosts, and the going-away of things.


James says his grandfather built this house out in the country on the same site where the original house burned in 1928. The summer James was fifteen, he came back from Virginia and lived in town with his grandfather, who would wake him up early every morning. One morning James slept in and didn’t awaken until an old friend of Jeff’s came in and stirred him, saying only, “Well, Jeff’s gone.”



While James cooks—a lone yellow lightbulb hangs in the kitchen, the venison in a black iron skillet, olive oil marinade, cream gravy, fried potatoes simmering—I ask him how connected he feels to Texas. His answer informs me that he considers Texas to be identified more by the land under his feet than the people who flow briefly across it.


“I love the hunting and fishing here, and the countryside, and my kin,” he says. “But I don’t consider myself as Texan as they are. I don’t consider myself a Texas musician because my songs are as likely to be set in Maryland as they are in Texas.”


As with a lot of great songwriters, his songs have been covered by surprisingly few others, and I think in large part it’s because he so thoroughly owns the sound of the songs he writes and sings that it would be daunting, hard to imagine them being sung by anyone else, famous or otherwise.

It’s tricky, he says, trying to figure out how to “assemble a career.” He doesn’t pass up jobs any more. On the drive in from Wichita Falls to Archer City, he pointed out a decrepit out-of-business honky-tonk where he played once. It can be a hard road to travel, he says, but he doesn’t seem concerned. Instead, he seems relieved, seems happy to be going hunting in the morning.


His mother taught him his first guitar chords when he was seven. He went to boarding school but didn’t care for it, went to college but didn’t care for that so much either. He tended bar for a while, worked on movie sets, including Daisy Miller and Lonesome Dove—in the latter, he was the kid who wouldn’t go in the whorehouse—and did a little nondescript cowboying on sets. But mostly, just music.


Awards and enumerations are no way to measure an artist, but he’s recorded ten albums, including a 2005 single, “We Can’t Make it Here,” which won Best Song. The record it was on, Childish Things, won 2005 Best Album by the Americana Music Association.


Somehow it’s gotten to be late. The wine is gone, and I nurse a dark rye beer. A call has come in from one of John Mellencamp’s band members, and I eavesdrop unabashedly as the two musicians shoot the breeze, with the lightning still raging outside, sitting at the dark plank table just at the edge of that small throw of yellow light, with the other musician’s disembodied voice coming in from out of the dry storm.


Their long, late-night earnest discussion over the minutiae of certain songs and sounds makes it seem to me that James is encamped in some laboratory far out in the country, where art burbles and gurgles, getting made, getting fabricated, getting dreamed, and seeking release into the world—always seeking release into the world. It wasn’t Robert Earl Keen who spawned it, of course, any more than it was Buddy Holly or even Townes Van Zandt, or anyone else. It was something older and deeper, and even though it seems those Old Ones have almost all gone away, and that thing has gone away, it hasn’t; it’s still out there in the soil, still coming up like a vapor, I think, in places, or like a spirit. And I think that to find it, you sometimes have to sit very still, like a hunter, and very quietly, and wait for such things to rise again and again.


From Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State by Rick Bass. Copyright © 2021. University of New Mexico Press, 2021.


Rick Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Houston. He started writing short stories on his lunch breaks while working as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi. Recognized by numerous Pushcart Prizes and the O. Henry Awards, he has had numerous stories anthologized in Best American Short Stories: The Year’s Best. His nonfiction has been anthologized in Best American Spiritual Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Science Writing. His books have been named New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Books of the Year and Best Book of the Year, Best Book of the Year by the Rocky Mountain News, and finalists for the prestigious Story Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.  


Bass has been recognized by the Texas Institute of Letters in fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism categories. He continues to publish celebrated fiction and nonfiction about the natural world and humans’ place in it. His recent books include For A Little While: New and Selected Stories and The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes. Bass lives in Montana.