James McMurtry Wins at a Complicated Game

Photo Credit: Mary Keating Bruton

A master songwriter, James McMurtry’s music can move you to tears, make you laugh out loud, and occasionally shock you. Acerbic, poetic, witty, insightful – he’s all of these things, often within the same song. Complicated Game, released last February, is McMurtry’s first album in six years, and it was worth the wait. Well known for his impressive ability to sing the political and the social (“Choctaw Bingo,” “We Can’t Make it Here”), McMurtry is equally adept at the poignant and beautiful, and Complicated Game, in a much more personal turn for McMurtry, is full of these songs.

In an interesting twist, McMurtry, a gifted storyteller who happens to be the son of novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), isn’t much of a reader. He prefers to listen.

“Mostly, I don’t read,” McMurtry told me in an interview this fall. “I read a little bit, but I’m not a voracious reader. I was a listener as a child. I listened to Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. I listened to songwriters. That’s how I learned to write. From listening.”

Kristofferson, in particular, was an early inspiration for McMurtry’s songwriting.

“Probably Kristofferson had more to do with it than anybody. He was the first one that was identified to me as a songwriter,” McMurtry recalled. “I hadn’t put much thought into where songs came from until I was about nine. My mother took me to see Kristofferson in Richmond Virginia.”

McMurtry modeled his own songwriting on some of the best.

“I kind of patterned off of Kristofferson. He writes real tight verse. He’s a Rhodes Scholar and has studied the form. John Prine is similar in that vein,” McMurtry commented. “They both write words that just fall in the pocket, and you can sing them or talk them with equal effect.”

According to McMurtry, composing the lyrics and the music for a song is a single process.

“When I write, I get lines and melody at the same time,” he explained. “I don’t put words to music or music to words. Now and then, I have to put words to music, and that’s hard. You have a track that’s already cut, and you’re trying to fit lines into them. Sometimes it’s worth the effort, but more often, I get a couple of lines and a melody and then just start building from there.”

McMurtry still spends a lot of time on the road. According to him, the changing music industry has made touring a financial necessity.

“The older we get, the more we tour it seems because of the way the music business is broken down. We’re not making money off record sales any more, even if we ever did,” he said. “It used to be that we toured to promote record sales, expecting to make a living off of royalties, and that worked out for some people. But then Napster and Spotify came along, and so the sales of hard product are way down, and the royalties on downloads are a fraction of what the hard product royalties were, so we’re not getting any mailbox money any more.”

The digital age has even changed the way McMurtry writes.

“I mostly write on an iPhone nowadays,” he laughed. “I jot stuff down. I wrote that whole record on an iPhone 3, which had that great notes app that looked like a legal pad. I remember the melodies and write down the verses and the chorus.”

For more information and the latest tour dates, visit McMurtry's website.


Anoter nice piece Julie...always interesting to hear how great songwriters write.  Thanks!

I think he's pretty amazing. I hope you like him, too. I appreciate your taking the time to read my writing, and I really appreciate the feedback! Thank you. 

Thanks for writing this!  Late to the party, but love reading about the process.