From the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove to books like Horseman, Pass By and The Last Kind Words Saloon, America has seen the Old West through the eyes of Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s lifelong pursuit began with just an inheritance of a small sack of books. In fact, the greatest romance of Larry McMurtry’s life may actually be with the written page. The enchantment and thrill of cracking open a new book has not only captivated McMurtry his whole life. It has also played a larger role, leading McMurtry to write works that, in part, deflated the previously skewed narratives of the Texas Cowboy. These new stories helped shape the way America now sees the Old West.
Before McMurtry, Westerns, either in book form or on the large screen, consisted mainly of gunfights, stagecoach robberies, and romances that ended with cowboys riding into the sunset, which left the actual story of cowboy life untold. The memories of his own youth, like ranching on the hills of Idiot Ridge, contained vivid threads of truth waiting to be shared.
Perhaps the greatest irony of McMurtry’s life is that his attempts to escape frontier life actually allowed him to bring frontier life to a new audience. In the end, it also brought him back to the frontier—at least geographically.
Born on June 3, 1936 in Archer County, Texas, Larry McMurtry’s life began as the son of rancher William Jefferson McMurtry, Jr. ( Jeff Mac) and Hazel Ruth McIver. A silent workaholic who rarely took breaks and detested laziness in others, Jeff Mac trained young Larry to be a rancher. Yet the life, that seemed as natural as breathing to Jeff Mac, fit Larry like two left shoes, and Larry’s pony was as likely to scrape him off as it was to let him ride it. However, at age six, a gift of nineteen books from Larry’s cousin Bob, who was joining the military, opened his eyes to an exciting new world.
“My fascination was with books, the way they looked, hefted, were printed, smelled, and of course, what was inside of them… I found my thing, reading and never abandoned it …” – An excerpt from the McMurtry’s autobiography, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.
Throughout his childhood, McMurtry could often be found sneaking away from ranching, imagining he was a Canadian Mountie in Sergeant Silk, the Prairie Scout or envisioning that he was off with Don Quixote on one of his adventures. By middle school, McMurtry was so enthralled with a new set of encyclopedias, his parents had all but given up getting Larry to train his 4-H show calf or to take an interest in saddles or spurs. When in 1954 Larry decided to enroll at Rice University, his father was not surprised and instead embraced, as well as he could, his son’s divergent destiny. Once at Rice, the repressed reader devoured the library like a ravenous dog devours table scraps.
While studying at Rice, McMurtry futilely tried his hand at writing his own stories. After failing a calculus course, he transferred to the University of North Texas where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree. Following college graduation, McMurtry married fellow North Texas student and writer Josephine Ballard in 1959. He went on to earn a Master of Arts from Rice University in 1960. While studying, McMurtry began writing about everything but ranching. His attempts were somewhat fruitless. After a reluctant return to the topic of ranching, however, McMurtry created a series of short stories, which he later intertwined and eventually turned into his first novel Horseman, Pass By. Published in 1961, the book was a literary success, winning a Jesse H. Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. The book launched McMurtry’s writing career and the several novels that followed including Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show, both stories which examined his Texas roots.
McMurtry was later awarded a Walter Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied fiction under Malcolm Coley and Frank O’Connor. During this time McMurtry also became a rare-book scout, which only increased his love of book collecting.
In 1962, McMurtry’s only son James was born in Fort Worth where his father was teaching at Texas Christian University. The following year McMurtry returned to Rice to teach English and Creative Writing until 1964. He taught at Rice again from 1965 to 1969 but took a break to focus on fiction writing in 1964 after winning the Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1966, McMurtry’s marriage to Josephine Ballard ended after which he began raising his son James alone.
In 1969, McMurtry left Texas to take a teaching position at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia after which he moved to Washington D.C. in 1970 where he taught at American University and opened his first rare book shop, Booked Up. He later added Booked Up locations in Archer City, Texas and Tucson, Arizona. He continued to write novels into the 1970s including Terms of Endearment, which was adapted as a successful academy award-winning screenplay in 1983.
His most successful piece of work to date by far is his 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for a television mini-series in 1986. His 2005 screenplay Brokeback Mountain also won an Academy Award. To date, Larry McMurtry has written 47 novels and numerous screenplays. He was recently working on a new memoir entitled 62 Women along with several screenplays that are still in the works.
The inspiration, which sparked McMurtry’s writing career, began early in life growing up on the Texas frontier. He was one of a few living witnesses to the demise of an era which began for him with the two most notable figures in his family history. His granddad was an amiable mustachioed Scot named William Jefferson McMurtry, Sr. and his formidable and sometimes frightening grandmother was the tight-lipped and tough-skinned Louisa Francis Williams. They were pioneers from Missouri who settled in Denton, Texas in 1877; a time where relations between Texas settlers and natives were still uncertain. They moved to Archer County ten years later to carve out a streamside ranch on the untouched slope of Idiot Ridge where they purchased land for a mere three dollars an acre.
The stream was a favorite watering place for cattle drivers, and the McMurtrys settled the surrounding area. The twelve McMurtry offspring often stared wide-eyed at the passing cattle-drivers, enthralled at the sight of the cowboys they idolized. Thus began the stories of famous cowboys that would blanket Larry’s youth. Although Larry did not take to ranching, he was attentive and observant, always watching and listening to stories of the famous cowboys told by and lived out in the lives of uncles, neighbors, and friends. He was captivated by stories of ranching life, yet still felt largely mismatched to it himself.
In adulthood, McMurtry found that the further away he roamed and the more he read, the more perplexed he became about the western genre’s portrayal of cowboys. The struggle, heartbreak, loneliness and often sad outcome of the Texas cowboy had been traded for a romanticized façade that held little truth, at least in Archer County.
Broken-down cowboys, nearly crippled and impoverished, would rope themselves into their saddles, sweating until their last breath to hold the only life they knew. Larry’s father, who took after his workhorse of a mother, spent his rigid, taxing existence attempting to hold on to the Old West by shear force. Jeff Mac lived to see his life’s work dwindle but worked his ranch until his last moments on earth.
After Jeff Mac’s death in 1977, Larry would return to Archer City with intentions to connect to his roots. Though his relationship with his father was baffling, McMurtry realized that the stabling force of his life was suddenly gone, and the absence it left was stifling. To this day Larry lives in Archer City and, though he repeatedly contends that he is done with writing about the west, he cannot seem to escape the hold that ranching and Archer City has on his soul.
Passing the Torch
It has been reported widely that Larry McMurtry and his father Jeff Mac were undeniably different and not much was passed from father to son, but closer inspection confirms the pair was more alike than they ever knew. Both appreciated education, as Jeff Mac was secretly a Clarendon College graduate. Both boasted stubborn and direct personalities, and it can still be said that fierce determination has been a trait passed on to future generations. The independent McMurtry mindset, which does not seem to require approval, can be seen of McMurtry’s son James and grandson Curtis.
James McMurtry, a singer/songwriter, has been touted among his peers as one of the best living songwriters; a trait possibly acquired by watching his father write at home.
“James McMurtry writes songs filled with characters so real that you’re sure they’re going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes.” – Voice of America
James began writing songs as a child and has been playing guitar since the age of seven. He did not set out to learn writing from his father, James said, but has naturally absorbed some of his father’s writing skills. Still, his career did not take an positive turn until he won the 1987 New Folk Songwriting Contest. Around the same time, McMurtry had the chance to pass a demo tape to singer/songwriter John Mellencamp, who was also an actor in one of Larry’s screenplays.
Mellencamp, said James, was instantly on board. It was September, and James only had until February to write ten songs for Melloncamp. The resulting album was rather successful, and James has been writing music ever since.
James’s third album Childish Things was critically praised, winning Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville. Additionally, James has dabbled in acting, appearing as an extra in a few of his father’s films including the famous Lonesome Dove. He has also produced eleven different rock albums. A new album debuted in February 2015 titled Complicated Games. James currently resides in Austin and is a regular musician at the Continental Club there.
In turn, James’s son Curtis McMurtry is also a singer/songwriter. He wrote his first song at age four and spent the majority of his teenage years writing music. After studying music composition and ethnomusicology at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Curtis returned to Austin after living in Nashville post-graduation.
In contrast to his father’s musical roots, Curtis’s musical training has been more varied. This can be heard in his songs with the sounds of strings, horns, and jazz solos. While James’s music is influenced by artists like Johnny Cash, Curtis has a penchant for Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Sam Cooke. Curtis is appreciative of what he has learned from both his father and grandfather. “I learned a lot from my dad by being around him,” Curtis said. “I think his songwriting is the best thing ever to come out of Texas. I hold myself to a higher standard because of his work.”
Curtis has received high praise for his first album, Respectable Enemyand is currently touring in Texas and Oklahoma. He lives in Austin and is set to appear throughout the Austin area in the month of February.
Hosting three successful generations of writers, it is easy to see how the McMurtry legacy that began in the 1880s on a hill called Idiot Ridge has produced what can only be referred to as pure genius.
For details on Larry McMurtry, visit his blog at www.flashandfiligree.com. For James McMurtry visit www.jamesmcmurtry.com, and for Curtis McMurtry visit www.curtismcmurtrymusic.com.