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'The Horses And The Hounds' Is James McMurtry's First Album In Seven Years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

James McMurtry says he works from a scrap pile of lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANOLA FIELDS")

JAMES MCMURTRY: (Singing) I was thinking 'bout you crossing Southern Alberta canola fields on a July day, about the same chartreuse as that '69 Bug you used to travel around San Jose.

SIMON: He scrolls through decades of lyrics on his screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANOLA FIELDS")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) You never knew where my old white Lincoln might take you - party on wheels with the suicide doors. Bring the kids and the dogs and your grandma, too. We always had room for more.

SIMON: He's welded together some strong and powerful songs on "The Horses And The Hounds." It's his first album of new material in seven years.

James McMurtry joins us now from Lockhart, Texas. Thank you so much for being with us.

MCMURTRY: Thank you, Scott - appreciate it.

SIMON: Your music is not exactly autobiographical. But it is keenly observant of our life and times. What do you look for when a song comes into your mind?

MCMURTRY: Well, I just - I usually get a couple of lines and a melody. And if it keeps me up at night, then I'll finish the song. And I just try to follow it to its logical conclusion. When I hear the first lines in my head, I think, who said that? And so I try to envision a character that would have said that. And then from the character, sometimes I can get a story. And the hard part is I have to try to keep from breaking character 'cause quite often, my characters don't agree with me.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MCMURTRY: I could try to make my own point, then I'm going to break character and write a sermon instead of a song.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another song on this album. Some of the songs also deal with relationships and getting older. Let's listen to a little of “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FT. WALTON WAKE-UP CALL")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) The internet's down. And they don't know why. And I damn near made the desk clerk cry. And there wasn't any reason for that.

She's camped in the shower. And she won't come out. And I don't have a clue what that's about. I'll just have to wait and see.

Can't get online to check the bank. Twitter's on fire. My stocks all tanked. But what's really getting to me is I keep losing my glasses.

SIMON: Does this song come out of all the little frustrations that can build up about getting older?

MCMURTRY: No. This song was just an exercise, really. I just started playing with words in a motel room somewhere and came up with that. I don't know where. And you know, that refrain, keep losing my glasses, that was initially meant to be just a placeholder for the real chorus.

SIMON: Which is?

MCMURTRY: But - you know, the guy - it wasn't - it never happened because the guy said, no, just leave that in there; it's fine, (laughter) you know?

SIMON: Oh. So I'm - I'd be wrong to put any kind of metaphorical significance to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FT. WALTON WAKE-UP CALL")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) And I kept losing my glasses.

SIMON: I thought the phrase, I keep losing my glasses, means I keep losing my focus in life or something.

MCMURTRY: No. That's just what I heard in my head. And I needed the right number of syllables to fill that gap.

SIMON: A lot of characters have come into your mind and heart over the years, have been American servicepeople. Let's listen, if we could, to some of your new song on this album, “Operation Never Mind.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPERATION NEVER MIND")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) She works a checkpoint in the city, choking on the gravel dust and smog. She knows not to stop the black Suburban. Those guys will run you down just like a dog. The KBR man knows her trailer. He hips her to some recon that he's found. But he'll be coming back for a late inspection. And there'd best not be no soldier boy around. No one knows 'cause no one sees.

I don't specifically write antiwar songs. But I try to remind people every once in a while that we do have people in uniform in harm's way. When I was a kid, you know, Vietnam was going on. And we had actual footage from the battles on TV. And we had a lot of pictures of very bored, lonesome looking GIs walking along in the dust and the heat. But we saw it. We didn't - it wasn't really sugarcoated.

Where Desert Storm came along, and suddenly the press was being spoon-fed the war by Schwarzkopf in a tent, you know, showing them the video clips that he wants. And then now we have embeds with the troops, which I hear are doing great journalism. But you don't see it much. You have to dig for it. That's really what I'm trying to get at in this song. We don't know what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPERATION NEVER MIND")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) We got an operation going on.

SIMON: This was all recorded pre-COVID, I gather.

MCMURTRY: All of it, yeah. We - it was tracked in June of 2019.

SIMON: I'm told, in Jackson Browne's studio in LA.

MCMURTRY: Yes. Groove Masters - very good room.

SIMON: Did Jackson Browne ever come in and keep tabs?

MCMURTRY: He stopped in a couple of times. He had a brand new Tesla that he would charge in the alley behind the studio.

SIMON: Do you think there're going to be a lot or even a few good pandemic songs once this is all over?

MCMURTRY: I don't know 'cause I don't ever sit down and try to write about a specific topic.

SIMON: Yeah.

MCMURTRY: Like I say, I just go with the words that come to me. And I can't predict who's going to write what.

SIMON: And you said that if it keeps you up at night, that's a good sign.

MCMURTRY: Yeah. That means - 'cause I'm pretty lazy, really. And it has to be a pretty cool song to - for me to bother to finish it.

SIMON: Do you write every day?

MCMURTRY: No. I mostly write when it's time to make a record. Most of these songs were finished within the last month before tracking.

SIMON: Wow. 'Cause I - you know, we've talked to a lot of writers and musicians who say it's important to write every day.

MCMURTRY: Well, it might not hurt me. But I just - I've never - I've always, like I say - I did my homework on the school bus when I was a kid. And it's sort of that way now. I mean, for this record, Ross Hogarth called up, said, James, you know, you've been messing around with this for long enough. I want to go ahead and book time at Jackson Browne's studio. And you're going to finish the songs.

SIMON: That's what it took?

MCMURTRY: He says, I know you. You'll do it. And I turned into Astro, the dog from the Jetsons, you know? (Imitating Astro speaking). You know?

SIMON: Yeah.

MCMURTRY: But somehow I got it done.

SIMON: James McMurtry, his new album, "The Horses And The Hounds" - thank you so much for being with us.

MCMURTRY: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HORSES AND THE HOUNDS")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) And I bet they hear it halfway back to town when I turn to face the horses. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.