James McMurtry

Too Long In The WastelandToo Long In The Wasteland
LevellandWhere'd You Hide The Body
No More BuffaloIt Had To Happen
Choctaw BingoSaint Mary Of The Woods
Out Here In The MiddleLive In Aught-Three
Lights Of CheyenneLive In Aught-Three
We Can't Make It HereChildish Things
HolidayChildish Things
Ruby And CarlosJust Us Kids
You Got To MeComplicated Game

James McMurtry photo



James McMurtry playlist


Contributor: Terry Newman

Another in the long list of Texan songwriters, James McMurtry first came to public notice in the late 80s when he entered and won the Kerrville Folk Festival songwriter contest.

The son of Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Larry McMurtry, you would probably expect him to be at ease with the written word and this is certainly the case. The immediate thing that strikes you when listening to a James McMurtry song is the expansive lyrical content; let’s face it he’s never going to win any singing competitions is he? In fact, his laconic delivery suits the songs and the characters he writes about.

His first album, Too Long In The Wasteland, produced by a certain John Mellencamp (who was starring in a film based on a script by James’ father), was released in 1989 and showed immense promise, the title track being the pick of the bunch.


Candyland (1992) and then Where’d You Hide The Body (1995) followed, and from the latter I’ve picked Levelland to make the final 10; a song about a small town in West Texas.

Flatter than a table top, makes you wonder why they stopped here,
wagon must have lost a wheel, or they lacked ambition

1997 saw the release of It Had To Happen, his first for the Sugar Hill label (having been dropped by Columbia) which featured the perennial live favourite, No More Buffalo:

Don’t chase that carrot till it makes you sick
what do you think you’re gonna prove
just let it dangle till it falls off that stick
that’s when you make your move


Saint Mary Of The Woods followed in 2002; from that we’ll pick Choctaw Bingo, a sprawling epic tale of a certain way of life in the American South. I guess you probably have to have lived it to truly understand it. We’re in Breaking Bad/Ozark territory here maybe?

“He paints a picture of an entire extended American family, a landscape replete with social pathologies, race relations, depravity and paranoia.” Craig Havighurst

Bet you want to listen to that eh?

Strap them kids in give em a little bit of vodka in a cherry coke
we’re going to Oklahoma to the family reunion for the first time in years
it’s up at Uncle Slaton’s cos he’s getting on in years
no longer travels but he’s still pretty spry
he’s not much on talk and he’s too mean to die

Uncle Slaton’s got his Texas pride
back in the thickets with his Asian bride
he’s got an airstream trailer and a Holstein cow
plays that choctaw bingo every Friday night
you know he had to leave Texas but he won’t say why

He cooks that crystal meth cos his shine don’t sell
you know he likes the money he don’t mind that smell

Out Here In The Middle is another from the same album but I’m picking it from Live In Aught-Three, an excellent live album released in 2004 which contains some of his best songs and would be a great entry point to discover his music.

Out here in the middle where the buffalo roam
we’re putting up towers for your cell phones
and we screen all applicants with a fine tooth comb
wish you were here my love

Also from Live In Aught-Three is the beautiful ballad, Lights Of Cheyenne:

And she’s got a cowboy problem, and this last one’s a sight
all dressed up like Gunsmoke for Saturday night
And they were off to the bars for lack of a plan
racing the stars to the lights of Cheyenne


In 2005, James McMurtry released Childish Things, his finest album to date in my opinion. This contains his most famous song, We Can’t Make It Here, a savage critique on the country at that time; anti-politics, anti Bush, anti-corporations, still as relevant today as then. It was voted best song of 2005 by many critics.

And that big old building was the textile mill
that fed our kids and paid our bills
but they turned us out and they closed the doors
we can’t make it here anymore

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
all lily white and squeaky clean
they’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed

Holiday, also on Childish Things, is another of those great ‘American family’ songs, a family you wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of, but would be fun to observe. The joys of a family holiday!

The in-laws are waiting the games have begun
the cell phone keeps ringing don’t answer it hon
the whole thing’s arranged just to aggravate Dad
and it’s amateur day on the old super slab


Just Us Kids was released in 2008 with no drop in quality. Ruby And Carlos is another classic song concerning the end of a relationship, I think! Some absolute killer lines as per usual …

Ruby said you’re getting us in a world of hurt
down below the mason dumb-ass line the food gets worse
I can’t go back to Tennessee, that Nascar country’s not for me
Go on if you think you must

We had to wait another seven years for the next, and to date the latest, album when Complicated Game was released in 2015. A much more reflective record but the writing quality is again top notch, including You Got To Me, a seemingly straightforward song about lost love, really rather sentimental compared to McMurty’s usual style.

To celebrate undying faith
we’re gathered here like drifted wrecks
for a late September wedding
October breathing down our necks
And I knew this town in another time
I knew this town a younger man
with the world in my hip pocket
and a subway token in my hand …

You got to me

James McMurtry’s main constituency is Middle America (out here in the middle, where the centre’s on the right) and his songs speak to the ordinary working class American whose main concerns are getting a job, going to Walmart etc. Archetypal Trump country you would believe, and yet McMurtry’s politics are well to the left.

James McMurtry is not only a fabulous songwriter and wordsmith, he also plays a mean guitar. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for another record.



“The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” Stephen King

“The most vital lyricist in America today.” Bob Harris

“James McMurtry is a true Americana poet – actually he is a poet regardless of genre.” Michael Nesmith


James McMurtry official website

James McMurtry biography (Apple Music)

This is Terry Newman’s 5th post for this site. He lives in North Yorkshire and you can find him on Twitter @westburtonlad.

TopperPost #672


  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 3, 2017

    What an excellent songwriter. Had been looking forward to this piece since seeing it in the upcoming list. Had known “Levelland’ through the Robert Earl Keen version, but hadn’t really checked out the rest of his work. This fine piece gives me the perfect place to start doing so.

    • Terry Newman
      Nov 4, 2017

      Thanks Andrew. There’s lots to discover in his back catalogue.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Nov 4, 2017

    Terry, I thought I knew all the Texan singer/songwriters of any note. You’ve very successfully proved me wrong. Many thanks for an intro to James and a great Toppermost.

    • Terry Newman
      Nov 4, 2017

      Thanks Dave, he’s been working successfully under the radar for many years.

  3. David Lewis
    Nov 4, 2017

    Choctaw Bingo is perhaps the best Texas song over the last two decades. I know it well but hadn’t yet dug further into James McMurtry. Now I will. Thanks.

      Nov 5, 2017

      That is a cracking song…..enjoy your digging into his work.

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