Tales from the wasteland
From the November, 2018 issue
James McMurtry's big, storytelling songs work either as acoustic folk or as Southern rock, and there are plenty of venues at which he does them on just an acoustic guitar. But in southeastern Michigan he has played noisier clubs with a rock band--the Magic Bag in Ferndale, and the Blind Pig, where he appears Nov. 3. They're better for his harrowing deindustrialization anthem, "We Can't Make It Here" (the double meaning is intended), which sometimes draws cathartic yells at this stanza:
Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin,McMurtry is a Texan, but the extraordinary song piles detail on detail in describing a ruined Midwestern town.
Or the shape of their eyes, or the shape I'm in?
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today?
No, I hate the men sent the jobs away.
Many of McMurtry's compositions have the same quality of extended description with rising impact or sometimes rising anger. His father is the novelist Larry McMurtry, and it's up in the air as to whether father or son will have a bigger place in American cultural history. In the giant "Choctaw Bingo," an eight-and-a-half-minute tale of the sleaziest family reunion of all time, James goes into darker places than his father ever did, even in the deadly The Last Picture Show.
Exuberant description is common to both, and "Just Us Kids," one of James' most successful songs, comes straight out of Larry's bleak Texas small towns, even as it goes forward into dot-com madness. But James adds another layer: the mature skepticism of the blues, which he picked up from Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt is one of the few songwriters he covers; almost all his other songs are expansive originals, many delivered in a sardonic semi-spoken near-monotone.
He's also got a few more fully sung, romantic songs like "Charlemagne's Home Town," each seeming to have a whole backstory. And he specializes in a kind of storytelling song that encompasses both rich resonance and telling detail. One of my favorites is "Hurricane Party":
The hurricane party's windin' down,In this hurricane season, in more ways than one, the music of James McMurtry may be just the ticket.
And we're all waitin' for the end.
And I don't want another drink--
I only want that last one again.
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Tales from the wasteland