Some love to talk a big game about changing the world through music, and some get busy doing it. While so many in modern “Americana” think the way speak truth to power is to call anyone you have a tacit disagreement with on Twitter a racist, and saddle your songs with hollow and transparent platitudes that only pander to constituencies, James McMurtry has been changing hearts and minds for over 30 years now by using the power of song, story, and character to allow the listener to walk in someone else’s shoes and broaden their perspective on life.
You can rage against white privilege, or you can tell the story of an impoverished neighborhood like McMurtry famously did in “We Can’t Make It Here.” You can make fun of rednecks, or you can speak their language—from fishing tackle to guns and ammo—and expose the poetic value of America’s rural forgotten. You can rage against fighting forgotten wars, or you can pen a song like “Operation Never Mind” that can be found here on McMurtry’s first album in six years, and expose exactly why they’ve been forgotten. Damn good timing for a song like this, as we all watch a 20-year effort in Afghanistan implode right in front of our very eyes.
James McMurtry is old school. He knows how character and nuance is worth so much more than namby pamby bromides. He can evoke the dimension of location in a song like few others, rattling off meticulous observational details of specific towns and cities as good as Google. McMurtry is a genius of keen insight, sponging up the mannerisms of people and the contours of culture in every town he travels to, and utilizing it in sculpting his songs into masterworks like Rodin.
But McMurtry—who turns 60 years old next year—doesn’t devote too much time on The Horses and the Hounds to trying to reshape society in some more perfect image. He also makes it patently clear he is not interest in fading away quietly.
The album starts off as your pretty standard McMurtry release—exquisitely written of course, and fairly mild mannered as it unfolds. But then starting with the title track, The Horses and the Hounds breaks out into a straight up rock record. Surprisingly, and somewhat refreshingly, McMurtry doesn’t just rely on lyricism to carry the day.
The Horses and the Hounds was produced by Ross Hogarth who helped engineer McMurtry’s first two albums, and guitarist David Grissom who played on those first two albums shows up as well. In other words, they got the band back together, and if the attempt was to tap into that early-career McMurtry magic and energy, they dutifully succeeded.
You get some excellent, late-career additions to your James McMurtry catalog, like the early release song “Canola Fields,” where all your favorite elements of McMurtry’s songwriting unfold. You get to witness McMurtry make you identify with a murderer in the song “Decent Man.” He can make a 5-minute song unfold like a novel, where you feel like you know the protagonist first hand, and have just experienced and hours-long epic.
But don’t pass judgement on someone if they find even more favor with a song like “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call,” with it’s talk sung verses and aggressive attitude. “Catchy” is probably not a diagnosis most would consider for a James McMurtry song, but you’ll be walking around for the rest of the day, humming,” Keep losing my glasses, glasses…” to yourself. The next song “What’s The Matter” is a similar experience. It’s still the excellent writing we love from McMurtry, but the infectiousness and energy that was more indicative of his early career has returned.
James McMurtry’s last album Complicated Game from 2015 ended up being considered the Album of the Year around here. Not sure if a similar fate awaits The Horses and the Hounds. But it makes a good argument for being one of the most enjoyable, and thus, maybe one of the most accessible albums of James McMurtry’s career. If McMurtry was looking to mash the accelerator and not let the old man in as he soldiers past the three decade mark in the songwriting trenches, he certainly accomplishes this on The Horses and the Hounds.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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