As Tennessee Williams warned us 50 years ago, the world is full of mendacity. Liars and thieves surround us. What’s even worse, these people serve as our leaders. They head the government and run our industries. That may not be news, but it should still piss us off. James McMurtry rants against those who profit by making us a nation of wage slaves and desperate characters. The long, tall Texan finds dignity in the grubby details of limited choices and blighted landscapes. He wears his poetic passion with a snarl across his face.
McMurtry’s most explicitly political expression of his dissatisfaction, “We Can’t Make It Here”, describes the double-edged knife in the back caused by the nation’s loss of manufacturing jobs and the dismal economic wasteland that results. He sings a tale of woe caused when a town’s textile mill closes because the company can employ cheaper workers overseas. The lack of middle-class incomes has a ripple effect on the community. Small stores go bankrupt and even bars lack regular paying customers. Working two minimum wage jobs doesn’t cover the cost of rent and food. For those of the younger generation, their only option lay in the military. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and McMurtry sings of them with hatred in his voice: “They’ve never known want/ They’ve never known need/ Their shit don’t stink and/ And their kids won’t bleed /Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war.” McMurtry’s target is clearly President Bush and his rich chicken hawk supporters. The musician made the song available for free as a download on his Website during the 2004 election.
Most of the time, the sacrifices made by those in the military mean little to the rest of us. “Memorial Day” becomes an excuse for getting together with loved ones on vacation. We celebrate by driving the speed limit. Actually, that’s a good thing. McMurtry know our fallen heroes died for causes as simple and profound as families getting together. Of course this keen-eyed observer of human foibles understands what happens when people congregate, no matter how well intentioned or how good the cooking. Fights and squabbles are sure to break out when people have the right to speak freely, even if its moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. McMurtry’s story of the annual family gathering that marks the beginning of summer movingly captures the expectations and disappointments of holiday hijinks.
McMurtry’s guitar playing relates these stories as eloquently as his lyrics, but more importantly, they talk together and tell the tales with one voice. His axe converses, laughs, and comments right along with the words from his mouth. On songs like “Pocatello,” McMurtry’s choppy rhythms create an infectious hook as irresistible as the temptress he sings about. You can tell the song’s about an alluring female who’s gonna burn the narrator by the amped up resonance of the strings. Think of the Lowell George and Little Feat’s work on “Dixie Chicken” as a reference. The two tunes share a similarity of sound and sexual promise simultaneously rewarded and unfilled as communicated in the words and guitar playing.
The heroine of “Pocatello” and most of the other characters of these songs have an inherent nobility. Even when McMurtry makes amusing observations, he endows people with a natural grace because they are willing to be themselves. His Bible quoting Aunt Clara, the girl in the Laundromat with bourgeois dreams, the young man who can’t wait to get his chores done and head downtown, are depicted with panache and a bit of grace. This makes the Texan’s tales even better because one can identify with the foolish and the wise alike as we all make foolish and wise decisions in life. McMurtry’s songs frequently capture people at those pivotal movements when telling the difference between the two choices is not always clear.
Or as McMurtry points out in the title song, knowing when to put away “Childish Things” can be difficult. Life is short, but why grow up so fast? What’s ahead of us is not clear-is it heaven or the ghosts of the past that await-and those thoughts and feelings one might have thought were juvenile may possess greater wisdom, value and truth than initially believed. But this makes the disc sound so heavy. The truth is that most of the songs contain plenty of humor. He’s a funny guy with a clever sensibility, who is able to refer to Marcel Proust and T.S. Eliot without sounding false or pretentious (i.e. as a tourist in the cafés of Europe, the modern day Prufrock notes, “I measure out my life in coffee grounds.”). The line is not forced and works whether one knows the reference of not.
Life may be tough, but it’s the only one we’ve got. McMurtry knows that the spiritual keys to the cosmos can be found in human relationships and in our interactions with the world. His songs cause one to get mad at others and laugh at oneself. It’s enough to make you restless, and McMurtry’s disc provides a first-rate soundtrack for the trip.