James McMurtry

On this date in 1962, singer-songwriter James Lawrence McMurtry was born to Josephine (Ballard Scott) and Larry McMurtry in Fort Worth, Texas. “My folks divorced when I was about 7. We all wound up in Virginia in different parts of the state. I lived with my dad, so I learned to get along with him pretty good,” McMurtry later said. (hobotrashcan.com, April 17, 2008)

His father, award-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, gave him his first guitar at age 7, and his mother, a college English professor and Shakespeare scholar who read Proust in French, taught him how to play it. After divorcing, his father taught creative writing and college English while writing novels. His first novel in 1961 was adapted for film as “Hud,” starring Paul Newman. “The Last Picture Show” (1966) was also adapted for film. Later works, the 843-page novel “Lonesome Dove” and the script for “Brokeback Mountain,” brought him a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar.

James made his film debut at age 12, playing Cybill Shepherd’s bratty brother in director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller,” a role he thinks his dad arranged. He began performing in his teens and studied English and Spanish at the University of Arizona in Tucson before settling in San Antonio. His debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland” (1989), focused on Americana and “roots” music and was co-produced by John Mellencamp.

Work on his second album “Candyland,” released in 1992, took a back seat to dealing with the arrival of newborn son Curtis. McMurtry and his artist wife Elena Eidelberg split up when Curtis, now a successful performer and songwriter, was 10.

Eleven more albums have followed “Candyland” as of this writing in 2022. McMurtry says Steve Earle is his role model on how to write good political songs without turning them into sermons no one wants to pay to hear. His main influences as a songwriter? “Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, mostly.” An example is “State of the Union” with its lines about his sister leaving a restaurant before a family argument got worse: “Went to Wednesday night prayer at the new Christian church / With a cross on her neck and a nine in her purse / She might be the wisest of us.” (The “nine” is a 9-mm handgun.)

“[McMurtry] does admit to being a lifelong confirmed atheist, much like the cheerful narrator of his anthemic song, ‘If It Don’t Bleed,’ who toasts, ‘Save your prayers for yourself, I raise my glass to your health!’ ” (The Paper, Sept. 3, 2021) The song, on his album “The Horses and the Hounds” (2021), continues: “But I wouldn’t get down on my knees on a bet / I’m near enough to Jesus as I ever want to get / Seeking salvation isn’t part of my general plan.”

Larry McMurtry also lacked religious belief, he said in an interview with writer Benito Vila shortly before his death in 2021 at age 84: “I am in no way a spiritual person. I wrote a letter to the pastor of my Methodist church when I was in the fourth grade, explaining to the pastor I was quitting the church. I am a realist, an atheist, and I have no thoughts or opinions about spirituality or the after life, or what inspiration the stars may hold.”

As of this writing in 2023, McMurtry lives south of Austin in Lockhart, Texas. His song “The Horses and the Hounds” (the album’s title track) was nominated for Song of the Year in 2021 at the Americana Music Awards. He performed while wearing a dress in May 2023 in Nashville to protest a Tennessee law banning “male or female impersonators” from performing in public spaces or in the presence of children.

PHOTO: James McMurtry in 2017 in Eppstein, Germany; Christian Düringer photo under CC 4.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation