Fishing and Fiction

Former Tucsonan James McMurtry writes in vivid detail about the quirky and the dark

Singer/songwriter James McMurtry doesn't have kind words about his press kit, delivered just as the phone interview begins.

"A pack of lies," he says.

In fact, the sparse bio is mostly true. Born in 1962 in Texas, McMurtry grew up in Virginia, the son of author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment). For a time, he lived in Tucson and attended the University of Arizona.

"I barely became a sophomore before I dropped out of school," he admits. "What I liked was to go down between Amado and Arivaca and hunt quail and dove. I liked the fishing down at Arivaca Lake. I'd sit up all night catching catfish. It got kind of spooky down there under a full moon, all the rocks, the way they were shaped."

He notes, "My hangout was the Hoagie Ranch on Sixth, across from Lloyds. The Backstreet Boogie Band was the house band."

McMurtry and his rhythm section, the Heartless Bastards, are touring to promote his seventh album, Live in Aught-Three. His recording career began with the 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, produced by John Mellencamp. It introduced McMurtry's distinctive baritone voice and insightful writing on songs like "Painting by Numbers," "I'm Not From Here" and "Talkin' at the Texaco." He's always shown a poetic eye for blue collar detail: "Light snow falling / on the muffler shops and lumberyards / the streets are slick as glass" ("Outskirts").

Like the late Warren Zevon, McMurtry's songs are often peopled with dark and quirky characters. Take the dysfunctional family reunion of his sinewy epic, "Choctaw Bingo," from his last studio album, St. Mary of the Woods. The family patriarch is a shady real estate dealer cooking meth in his back acres; one nephew runs illegal cigarettes; another relative is a local football coach with a penchant for high-caliber weapons; the narrator dreams of incestuous relations with two hot second cousins.

His tales are so vivid, his fans sometimes mistake the writer for the protagonist.

"It's fiction," McMurtry explains. "People don't accept that in a song the way they do in prose or in movies. They're not real, actual people. They're generally composites of people I met or heard about. A lot of people don't accept the fact that you can make stuff up. When you hear the singer's voice, you think that is him talking--you don't make the leap to a character. Narratives just give you more chances of getting a song written, if you can write from the point of view of a character."

To check out his lyrics in concert, McMurtry advises, "Stand back by the console where you get a real blend. The front middle is for dancing. If everybody is just staring at me, I get kinda weird, cause I don't know what they're thinking. On the other hand, you can tell somebody is having a good time if they're moving."