Almanac Music: Not quite Bob – James McMurtry



Not Quite Bob – James McMurtry


On this site I’ve read a few pieces in praise of the giants – Bob, Neil, The Band, Lennon, the Stones et al – and I’m in that club.  The right vintage, ready to be impressed by them on entering the teens.  But in that band of notables there was an exception in my esteem.  And I need to say this quietly, especially in this company.  I didn’t get Bob.  Note the past tense.  Didn’t get him.  Can’t sing, can’t play was my judgement and this from someone who was the Lionel Poindexter (you’d best look that up) of his friendship group.  When the bass, guitar, drums and singing jobs had been allocated I got made ‘Roadie’ when mates formed a band (Fra Bul; no amount of research will reveal anything about them) despite not being able to drive and being both too puny and mostly unwilling to fulfill the brief.


So, not a fan of Bob’s.  My first ever album was Second Winter by Johnny Winter and my second was Led Zeppelin’s debut.  By which time Dylan had already released 9 incredible albums up to Nashville Skyline but what would I know?


But an epiphany was had in an odd setting.  In 2003 Bob toured Australia for the 7th time and played Melbourne out the back of Jeff’s Shed outdoors.  I was suitably moved.  Crack band, great songs and Bob.  A bit croaky but charismatic, impressive, mesmerising.  Hooked.  Went and scooped up a lot of the 1st 9 plus Blood On The Tracks, The Basement Tapes, Time Out Of Mind, Before The Flood and Love And Theft.  The scholars will point out some gaps but I was happy with that lot.


Not Quite Bob then?  Having joined the club (scoffed at by my music loving mates most of whom had attained the status of ‘afficionado’ long before) it slowly crept in that a lot of the music I loved bore Bob’s indelible stamp, his footprints as it were.  He’s in the lyrics, the voices, the way the songs are constructed, the way they’re performed.  Turns out I’d been a Bob fan long before I knew it.


That’s the backdrop to this piece and others that will follow.  Not Quite Bob but you can hear him in there.  If only I’d bothered to listen closer sooner!!


The first cab off the rank is James McMurtry, a Texas good old boy, born in the Lone Star State but raised in Virginia.  He got his break via John Mellencamp (aka Johnny Cougar when he first started) who co-produced his first album in 1989, Too Long In The Wasteland.  It’s a perfect start for McMurtry, all killer, no filler, I heard it and loved it straightaway.  Others were impressed too as he was asked to join a country supergroup with Mellencamp, Joe Ely, John Prine and Dwight Yoakam to record the soundtrack for a film called Falling Grace.  Which didn’t last past the soundtrack but they were all big artists with big solo careers so it was left for James to carve out a decent but not prolific career of 10 albums over the last 20+ years.  All really good with the most recent called The Horses And The Hounds released in mid-2021.  Not a bum note on it, you could audition it here.



But really you could start anywhere, the 1989 debut was followed by a bunch of terrific records including Childish Things in 2005 and Complicated Game ten years later.  On Childish Things McMurtry gives his most obvious nod to Bob with a track called ‘We Can’t Make It Here’.  Protest in the lyrics, a sneer and a snarl in the voice, laconic but angry delivery (if those two things even mix) it’s a song that belies his Southern roots; a sort of pre-Trump premonition even more potent today.



James is prominent on YouTube with some dubious videos to accompany his songs which feature cars (lots of cars), humour, terrible lip synching to his own songs and NQR depictions of his pervy fascinations.   Must play well somewhere but maybe he just doesn’t care.  The more recent of them show a well worn James but the songs are always good.



Enjoy exploring James’ unique Dylan-inflected world and I’ll leave you with a James McMurtry footnote.  James is the son of Larry McMurtry, novelist and screenwriter whose own take on the American mid-western story is worth having a look at.  Larry wrote Lonesome Dove which was adapted for TV and co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.  Larry gave James his first guitar at the age of 7.  A belter to finish.




We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE


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  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Thanks for the article Trevor, it’s a fab intro to the music of James McMurtry. I’m a fan of his music, and hopefully more Aussies will learn about his music and develop a love for it as well. Your piece certainly provides a vehicle for this.

  2. Thanks Retrotrev, like CR and your good self, I’m a long time fan of James McMurtry. Too Long in the Wasteland blew me away. And he has not let me down since including his latest. His story songs appear simple but after a listen or two you hit the layers. And then its wow. Operation Never Mind for example.

    You’re probably familiar with Joe Henry, Robbie Fulks and Simone Felice, who are also of this level as singer songwriters.


  3. thanks Col. i’m interested in the icons but just as keen on those banging around in bars and small venues. I’m guessing that’s James’ home base. and yes Rick I know those artists and a lot like them. in the pieces i intend to write under the Not Quite Bob banner (not all of whom are obvious Bob disciples btw) I know I could do one a week for the next few years. i think i started with James because he was the last one playing in the car after a brief roadie last weekend and his songs are perfect in that space.

  4. Retrotrev get back to film producing and stop faffing around here with these blokes.
    Lately my guilty (and perhaps juvenile) pleasure is watching Stevie Ray Vaughan on Youtube playing Texas Flood live. You can watch reactions to his work by young rappers who don’t know much about rock or the blues or guitar and have never heard of SRV. They’re pretty blown away by his musicianship… and when he slings the axe behind his back and is still an unmatched virtuoso… well, it’s fun to watch.

  5. AJC if Texas Flood is your catnip mine is Jimi doing Red House. YouTube can be a trap because it makes some irresistible suggestions. a lot of people have covered Red House but none better than Master J Hendrix. maybe you should concentrate on outrunning the sharks where you are so you can make it back to the keyboard for your next opus.

  6. Thanks for this Retrotrev.
    I am aware of James McMurty, but have never paid him much attention. Maybe I will have a listen.

  7. Thanks for the reminder Trev – I really should listen to more James McMurtry. I saw him once in Austin at The Continental where he has played for years.
    “Second Winter” was your first album? I still love that album and listed it in “the top ten albums that changed my life”. Everyone I lent it to played the blank fourth side just in case there was a secret message from Johnny.

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