When we last touched on the music of Texas troubadour James McMurtry, it was to examine his sophmore effort Candyland. Back then, his burgeoning career was aided by a Columbia Records contract and the helping hand of established vet John Mellencamp. Sixteen years and seven albums later, McMurtry needs no help from any major record company or big time rock star.
Tuesday brought the launch of McMurtry's first release by fledgling Lightning Rod Records, Just Us Kids. In this ninth of McMurtry albums, he presents the same Texas-flavored brand of rootsy Americana rock that's been his signature approach since his debut Too Long In The Wasteland from 1989. He's never enjoyed the widespread commercial success enjoyed by the Hiatts and Springsteens he's often compared to, but the critical acclaim he regularly receives is well-earned.
Since those early days of hangin' with Cougar, McMurtry remains the same guy he was back then, but with some subtle differences.
McMurtry still writes plainly-recounted character sketches of ordinary people clinging to hope by a hair, and of imperfect relationships. Nowadays, it's increasingly supplemented with frustration over the general direction of the country and mid-life crisis themes.
McMurtry still has that flat, lazy baritone warble replete with a Ft. Worth twang. Nowadays, it's nuanced more with a sneer here and subdued rage there or a wisecrack elsewhere.
McMurtry still has someone in the producer's chair who understands his folkish-rock brand of music. Nowadays, it's not Mellencamp, it's someone who knows him even better: McMurtry himself.
Kids picks up where the prior Childish Things (2005) left off, creating flawed characters from the margins of society, the halls of power or people caught in-between, against a backdrop of early 21st century America. This collage of our country includes the aging of America ("Just Us Kids"), loneliness ("Hurricane Party," "Freeway View"), crime ("Fire Line Road," "The Governor"), and rampant corporatism and warmongering ("God Bless America (Pat MacDonald must die)," "Ruins Of The Realm," and "Cheney's Toy" featured in the video below).
The appeal of McMurtry songs has never relied on anything groundbreaking in the melodies or the way it's played, although both are solid in that regard. No, it's those narrative lyrics and the personal way McMurtry delivers them that keeps listeners mesmerized like a child giving rapt attention to a bedtime story being read aloud to him by a parent. That's what makes a tune like "We Can't Make It Here" from Childish so engaging despite its sheer length.
He likewise does a magnificent songcrafting job on the lightly accompanied "Ruby and Carlos," where he spins the sad tale of a cross-generational relationship battered to death by conflicting aspirations. McMurtry does it with such pithy imagery it's bound to have made Townes Van Zandt nod in approval from whatever place he ended up in the afterlife. At the least, James' more famous literary father, Larry, surely approves. With that talking/singing style he's long ago perfected, the son James spins the tale of the doomed lovers with sweet poetry:
Carlos packed his drums up in the dark of night
Ruby standing just outside the front porch light
Chain-smoking Camel straights
The sky off to the East got grey
And he rolled off in a cloud of dust
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The pictures on the back and the sleeve of the CD show McMurtry at a bar nursing a beer and chatting with friends. It presents him as a guy that regular folks can connect to as one of their own. You don't need the pictures to get a sense that McMurtry is that kind of person. The music contained on the disc makes his ability to connect with common people like you and me much more apparent than pictures ever could.