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James McMurtry returns to Ithaca for sold-out Sunday night show

James McMurtry
James McMurtry

Acclaimed Texas-based singer-songwriter James McMurtry returns to Ithaca for a sold-out show at the Hangar Theatre on Sunday night. He’s touring to promote his latest album, 2021’s “The Horses and the Hounds,” and also will draw from a deep song catalog that dates back to the late 1980s.

“We play whatever works in set,” McMurtry said in a recent phone interview.

When McMurtry last performed in Ithaca, on March 1, 2019, he had just signed with New West Records and was getting ready to head into Jackson Browne’s Groovemaster’s Studio in Santa Monica, California, to work with producer Ross Hogarth. But then the pandemic happened, and “The Horses and The Hounds” didn’t come out until two years later.

“It was a lengthy process because we did the tracking in 2019 and overdubs off and on for the rest of the year,,” McMurtry said. “We just about had it wrapped up in California when the lockdown started, and we couldn't finish a keyboard session like we planned. So we did some of it here in Texas, and then some of the parts got mailed in. Eventually, it all got mixed, but it just took a while. And then we had to hold off on the release because COVID was still happening.”

McMurtry credits Hogarth, who has worked with everyone from John Mellencamp and Keb’ Mo’ to Van Halen and John Fogerty, for capturing him at his best in the studio. Hogarth recorded McMurtry’s first two albums, 1989’s “Too Long in the Wasteland” and 1992’s “Candyland,” and later mixed McMurtry’s first self-produced album, 2002’s “Saint Mary of the Woods.”

“He's got some of the best ears in the business today,” McMurtry said. “It's the first time I've worked with him as a producer. I had him in to mix the first record I self-produced because I don't know a better mixer. And he has a sense of arrangement – he would say things like, ‘Take an extra measure here. Take a breath in there. Deliver that line a little bit later.’ He's just done a lot of records, and he knows what works.”

Booking studio time also gave McMurtry a deadline that helped him to bear down and complete that batch of songs.

“I don't usually finish until it's time to make a record,” he said. “Songs just come together when they do. I don't really write them as an act of will.

McMurtry, who turns 61 on Saturday, has toured both with his band and by himself. Does he find it more challenging to play solo? “No, that's what I started out doing,” he said.

He played with his band at the State Theatre of Ithaca in 2018, when he opened for Jason Isbell, who has long been one of his biggest boosters.

“James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he’s working at the top of his game,” Isbell said. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.”

Like many musicians, McMurtry was sidelined from touring for a lengthy period by the pandemic. While he learned how to put on live-streamed shows as an alternative, he noted that there’s nothing hitting the road and performing in front of a live audience.

“I didn't think I would miss it, but it turns out I do,” he said. “It is good to do something you’re reasonably competent at. That makes you feel good.”

Valerie Fremin

Meet BettySoo

BettySoo, aka “Austin’s Asian-Americana Sweetheart,” will open the show. Her latest release is “Insomnia Waking Dream,” a collection of recent song demos, and she also contributed vocals to McMurtry’s “The Horses and The Hounds.”

“She's badass, and she can really sing,” McMurtry said of BettySoo. “I actually recorded those background vocals sessions with her here in Texas, and she was a total pro in the studio. And we’ve toured with her a lot, too. She's really great.”

If you go

Who: James McMurtry, with opener BettySoo

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Hangar Theatre, Ithaca

Cost: SOLD OUT; go here to get on the wait list

Event Info

James McMurtry
James McMurtry

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.