Listening to James McMurtry’s darkest songs has always felt like hanging at a late-night diner or dive bar or even midday laundromat while eavesdropping on a compelling – sometimes horrible and probably embellished – tale that may or may not be true. You lean in as close as possible to overhear without being noticed, but you never get all the details, making it even more scintillating.
McMurtry gives you more reasons than ever to bend an ear his way on his first album in over six years. He spends most of his time reminiscing about murdering an old friend, reconnecting with an unrequited love, ambiguous “accidents” that may or may not have been murder, outrunning the law for reasons never revealed, and a frustrating inability to locate his spectacles.
The Horses and the Hounds reunites McMurtry with the power of electricity. Where 2015’s acoustic-based Complicated Game was, like all his releases, rich in imagery and narrative depth, plugging back in adds the grit and punch that has powered some of his best work over the years, from Where’d You Hide the Body to It Had to Happen, Saint Mary of the Woods, and beyond. It’s the elasticity of McMurtry’s electric rhythm playing that has placed him ahead of most other singer-songwriters in his class. He’s able to groove and rock out while he delivers tales poetic in structure and cinematic in scope.
However, this time McMurtry turns the crunch over to Austin guitar master David Grissom, whose nimble fingers have helped raise the roof on sessions with Joe Ely, John Mellencamp, his own Texas supergroup, Storyville, and many others over the years. Along for the ride is Charlie Sexton, another Austinite who once fronted, along with Doyle Bramhall II, his own Texas supergroup that shared the same rhythm section as Storyville – that being Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble – the Arc Angels. There are also percussion masters Daren Hess, Kenny Aronoff, and Stan Lynch; organist Bukka Allen; bassist Sean Hurley; and backing vocalists Betty Soo, Akina Adderly, and Randy Garibay, Jr. The players at times rock hard, other times they color around the lyrics, offering up sympathetic backing that encapsulates the stories that pour from McMurtry’s pen and voice, accompanied occasionally by his acoustic guitar.
Another piece to the puzzle is the return of Ross Hogarth, who was behind the boards of not only both Candyland and Wasteland but also Storyville’s A Piece of Your Soul, working with Grissom. A resume that also includes the Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, R.E.M., John Mellencamp, and many others, Hogarth knows how to get the big rock sound while keeping the lyrics front and center.
Upon first listen, The Horses and the Hounds is reminiscent of most other McMurtry albums, but as it unfolds, new textures appear and settle into the mix like they’ve always belonged. The biggest surprise is the way the backing vocalists are used, especially on the title track and “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call”. The counter vocals on both songs add a dimension previously unheard on a McMurtry record.
But, like always, it’s the stories and the lines that color them that stay with you long after the music’s done: the hiding out under the narrator’s hat in the back of the bus in “Canola Fields”; the mule that leads a “Decent Man” to his destiny; the “white cross in the borrow ditch” where “Jackie” goes off the road. These and many other moments illustrate the level at which McMurtry works and always has. It also makes The Horses and the Hounds well worth the wait.