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Liner Notes

First Listen: James McMurtry’s The Horses and the Hounds

James McMurtry
James McMurtry

The last time James McMurtry dropped a new record, Barack Obama was the president, NASA had just discovered water on Mars, and the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl (I realize that this is a bad example, especially since I am an embittered, yet eternally hopeful fan of the New Orleans Saints).

In any case, the year was 2015 when James McMurtry released Complicated Game. Fast-forward six years, two presidents and too many Saints playoff losses/bad calls... and here we are in 2021 with his latest release The Horses and the Hounds. It came out on Friday, August 20th and he recorded it on the west coast, in Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters Studio in Santa Monica.

The Horses and the Hounds, or really any McMurtry record, is like a collection of short stories or character studies, almost like a blue collar Canterbury Tales. But James McMurty isn’t snarky like Chaucer, he’s earnest and empathetic in his portrayals.

The Horses and the Hounds album James McMurtry

He lets his characters tell their stories, however true to life, like the protagonist of “What’s the Matter,” a road-worn performer who has left his partner at home with kids and a broken dryer, as he struggles to make a decent living as a touring musician.

Or the down-and-out farmer who murdered his best friend, the titular “Decent Man,” with a pistol he took from the wall of a bar for no apparent reason other than perhaps he was drunk and his farmland was barren.

Or the third-person lament for “Jackie” the eponymous trucker who goes out on the road, but jack-knifes her truck on black ice and dies, leaving behind a lackluster horse farm and a lukewarm love interest named Randy.

The Horses and the Hounds is, for the most part, a pastoral elegy, delivered with James’ exquisite attention to the poetry, the meter and the visual details. The imagery of scant, fruitless landscapes are ever present (save for the Canola fields of southern Alberta, Canada), and they set the stage for lives where prosperity and hope are seemingly just out of reach. And while the characters of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are all on their way to a single destination, the characters of The Horses and the Hounds are eternally set in their own small, dry Groundhog Days.

I wonder what the world will be like the next time James McMurtry drops a record. Maybe the Saints will win a Super Bowl in the meantime. Or maybe it’ll be Groundhog Day for them, too.

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