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Growing up in America 

James McMurtry sang me a song. We're talking about country artists who write political songs -- or maybe we were talking about Americana artists who write narrative songs -- but either way, Kris Kristofferson came up, and the next thing you know, he sang me a full two-and-a-half verses over the phone of Kristofferson's heartbreakingly simple ballad "Broken Freedom Song." In it, Kristofferson lays out the quiet devastation war (and life in general) can wreak at home in a kind of tight-focus montage, flipping quickly through a series of snapshots that leave the listener feeling so lonely and bereft that it seems possible that nothing will ever be okay, ever again.

The characters that come to life in the brief cameos of "Broken Freedom Song," it becomes clear, are kinsmen not far removed from the cast that populates McMurtry's latest, Childish Things, which came out last year on Compadre Records. McMurtry is a ragged-voiced roots-rocker with mean electric guitar chops, who deals in close-up storytelling. His style owes a lot to John Prine, though without much of the folkie's warmth. Prine criticized cheerfully when he got political, with rib-poking songs like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven," and always seemed to look on from afar, with a distance-softened love for the working-class Americans he mythologized. McMurtry, while at least equally talented, is pretty unforgiving in the pictures he paints of everything from the embarrassing state of the nation to the microcosmic horror of a family holiday.

McMurtry's father, of course, is the author Larry McMurtry, who collected the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for his post-Civil War, pre-transcontinental railroad novel of transition in the American West, Lonesome Dove. Larry wrote many more very thick works of fiction that I, and lots of other people, read all of. McMurtry pere was a well-known, accomplished scholar of the West, but his gift as a storyteller lay in bringing to life the grand sweep of history via the tales of individuals who were, often, haplessly unaware that "history" was what they were a part of. McMurtry fils, although his medium is an apple to the epic novel's orange, shares that talent -- and with the added application of twangy rock 'n' roll, is capable of making a listener want to boogie-woogie and drive extra fast all while -- often -- being ultimately depressing as hell. One of the finest songs on the album is the opener, "Elephant" -- a song that seems like a nostalgic slice of Americana until the final verse, when it's revealed that the rural child begging to be allowed to go to town for the circus is actually a teenager of age to fight -- and is aware this might be his last chance to see the fantastic thing. (It also turns out that "see the elephant," the oft-repeated phrase in the song, was actually an early 20th century euphemism for visiting the prostitutes who followed the traveling shows, but anyway.)

The big song on Childish Things is the scathing commentary "We Can't Make It Here," which rips with disgusted, pull-no-punches precision through every node of rot eating away at the general constitution of the country, from the Iraq war to outsourced jobs ("Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today / No, I hate the men sent the jobs away / I can see 'em now, they haunt my dreams/ All lily white and squeaky clean.")

"It was my first foray into political songwriting," says McMurtry. "I had avoided that because I thought my songs would turn into sermons and nobody wants to listen to them." He wrote the song just before the 2004 election, recorded a solo acoustic version, and took it down to a morning show DJ he knew in Texas to put on the air.

"By the time I got home I had hate mail," he said. But oddly enough, it turns out that, allegedly -- incongruous as it might seem -- W. himself has McMurtry on his iPod.

"Now, that was reported in The New York Times in the summer of 2005," McMurtry remembers in an amused, cranky drawl. "I don't know why it was newsworthy, except Katrina hadn't happened yet and Cindy Sheehan was all over the front page. What it looked like was as if some rich guy came to Austin and asked his friends to fill it up with some cool local music. It had the Gourds on it and Alejandro Escovedo and people I don't think Bush gave a damn about. They left the Alan Jackson on, so as not to alienate the Git-R-Done crowd." At last year's Americana Music Association awards ceremony in Nashville, by the way, McMurtry apparently had to be fetched from the bar around the corner and herded back to the Ryman Auditorium to collect his award. So he's our kind of people.

click to enlarge James McMurtry's songs echo with the same themes and - voices of his famous father's novels about the American - West.
  • James McMurtry's songs echo with the same themes and voices of his famous father's novels about the American West.


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