“You never knew where my old white Lincoln might take you, party on wheels with suicide doors/Bring the kids and the dogs and your grandma too, we always had room for more,” James McMurtry sings with a slight Texas drawl. “Till that white knuckle ride back from Santa Cruz/Second best surfer on the Central Coast had you wrapped up all the way back to Los Gatos, and I could’ve cut his throat.”
James McMurtry doesn’t remember precisely when he came up with the references to Santa Cruz and the “second-best surfer on the Central Coast.” He does know it was sometime after his 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland.
“I knew I needed a song to put that line in,” McMurtry says. “That’s why the story starts with a flashback to the Central Coast.”
The opening track of the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s 2022 The Horses and the Hounds, “Canola Fields,” begins with “crossing Southern Alberta canola fields on a July day” before heading south to Santa Cruz, then to Brooklyn “before it went hipster.” Those Western Canada canola fields are at the heart of McMurtry’s location-laden song.
“I was amazed at the color,” he says. “Yellow and chartreuse all the way to the horizon, which is way far away—I’ve seen old Volkswagens painted that color. The song evolved over years of travel. It’s a work of fiction. There was no specific inspiration. I just followed the words.”
After 30 years on the road and recently releasing his tenth album, McMurtry continues to follow the words, and it’s led to a spot on a shortlist of notable Lone Star State songwriters, including Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt.
Many of his greatest songs are filled with gloom, others fueled by sadness and resentment; while the stories in McMurtry’s tunes are occupied by fictional characters, those characters are all pieces of him.
“Sometimes I’ll try to envision a character who might have said those lines,” he explains. “If I can feel the character, I can sometimes find the character’s story and shape it into a verse and chorus structure. I consider a song complete when I can sing it to an audience without cringing.”
“Canola Fields” is one of his less complicated stories; it’s jubilant and bustling with happiness. “Jackie” is at the other side of the spectrum—an intense tragedy that feels so real you want to jump inside the song and hug the protagonist.
McMurtry says he knows he has a “good” song when it keeps him up at night during the writing process. The feeling never grows old.
If anyone can relate to McMurtry’s sentiment, it’s singer-songwriter Todd Snider. The Nashville-bred troubadour might seem like a stoned-out-of-his-mind hippy, sporting a floppy hat and rambling on about this and that. But the veteran musician’s ability to weave satire, politics and humor throughout songs like “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” is a gift.
“I think absurdity is the most rational response to the human condition,” Snider says. “Under this guise of the Reverend Willie B. Wasted, I just started saying stuff like we’ve been divided by infinity, pomp and circumstantially, racially, religiously, physically, financially. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I say it like I know it. That’s what preachers do.”
If anyone knew what preachers do, Snider would qualify. He became ordained to marry his close friends, country star Jason Isbell and Americana fiddler extraordinaire Amanda Shires.
Talking to Snider is like talking to singer-songwriter icon Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. One minute, he’s talking about body surfing in Santa Cruz; the next minute, it’s all about how if it weren’t for Jimmy Buffet and John Prine, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. Also, he recently discovered that Tom Jones released a strange electronic version of his song “Talking Reality Television Blues.”
Like Elliott, Snider is full of stories about matter-of-factly stumbling into extraordinary and unbelievable situations. In 2020, one of the songs, “Hard Luck Love Song,” inspired a full-length film of the same name, directed by Justin Corsbie and starring Dermot Mulroney, RZA and Sophia Bush. Also, the entertaining stories that preface his songs during his live performances are sometimes as poignant as the songs. Snider’s follow-up to his 2021 First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, Live: Return of the Storyteller, is a 27-song crash course on the barefoot wanderer. It also reveals Snider’s tender side. The last two years have been rough, losing friends and mentors, including Neal Casal, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jeff Austin. When Prine died, it hit Snider hard. He spent several years touring with the songwriting luminary, learning from him about life, humility and everything in between.
Snider dealt with the pain by penning “Handsome John,” which appears on the First Agnostic Church record. But his live version of the tune on Return of the Storyteller is particularly heartfelt and humorous, punctuated by the story leading up to the song. Snider talks about the John Prine he came to know, love and joke around with. In one story, specifically, Snider recalls a long flight to Europe with Prine. When they arrived, everyone was exhausted and just wanted to get to the hotel and nap. On the way, Prine said to the driver, “I don’t think this is the right way.” The driver assured the musician that it was the correct way. Two hours later, the driver announced, “I think you were right. We didn’t go the right way.” Everyone in the car was fuming, Snider says. Meanwhile, Prine responded, “I like to drive around anyway.”
“And you knew [Prine] meant it,” Snider says. “That’s who he was.”
James McMurtry performs Friday, Oct. 14 at 8pm. Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $29.40 plus fees. Todd Snider with Ryan Montbleau (solo acoustic) performs Sunday, Oct. 16, at 8pm. $35/$55 plus fees. folkyeah.com.