James McMurtry was born on March 18, 1962, in Fort Worth, Texas. His father, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, exposed his son to what he called "hillbilly music" by playing the records of Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff. At the house of his mother, a university English professor, he heard a lot of Kris Kristofferson records. Cash was James' first concert as a child; Kristofferson, his second.
McMurtry finished his first song around the age of 25 and won honors at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1987. He released his rootsy debut album material on Columbia Records in 1989. It was comprised of all original material and produced by John Mellencamp, who collaborated with Larry on the Falling From Grace screenplay. After two more Columbia albums, James signed with Sugar Hill to release a trio of Americana albums. He offered a live set in 2004, recorded at two shows at the Zephyr in Salt Lake City, one at Nashville's 12th & Porter and one at the Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C.