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Back to the Wasteland

James McMurtry sketches the lives of people trying — and often failing — to make it here.

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When singer-songwriter James McMurtry debuted in 1989 with Too Long in the Wasteland, he seemed destined to be, well, not exactly a star but an alt-country/trad-rock cult and critic's favorite along the lines of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

McMurtry, the son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove), was a strong, true writer who shared his father's gift for sharp narratives set against a hardscrabble, rural Texas landscape. But he lacked the same level of musical facility that allowed Earle or (especially) Williams to turn their literary gifts into comparable music. Put simply, McMurtry is a stiff singer and folk-bound musician.

But McMurtry's solid career changed with 2005's "We Can't Make It Here" a political anthem of rattling, eloquent anger and pessimism. The plainspoken despair of "We Can't Make It Here" was too bleak to be a campaign anthem (except for Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders), but it was the most bracing "protest" song of the Bush years. It not only raised McMurtry's profile after nearly two decades of recording and touring, it seemed to energize the journeyman troubadour.

Appropriately, that career-changing song has led to a career-best album, the recently released Just Us Kids, which triumphs, in part, because McMurtry internalizes the feeling of "We Can't Make It Here" without trying to duplicate it.

The most outwardly political songs on Just Us Kids are also the most general: "Ruins of the Realm" compares downscale America to flailing empires past; "God Bless America (Pat MacDonald Must Die)" takes aim at big oil and the GOP. Best of the bunch is the single "Cheney's Toy," which some have suggested is aimed at Bush but which seems to me something bolder, tougher, and sadder. I think it's sung directly to troops fighting in Iraq, with McMurtry offering bitter, sarcastic advice ("Stay the course and make your mama proud") before dropping the gut-punch: "You're the man they're all afraid off, but you're only Cheney's toy."

Just Us Kids is at its best in the narrative songs, a series of lucid snapshots of people trying — and often failing — to make it in a country made harder, meaner, and more desperate over the past seven years. And these songs are hitched to a sonic palette that's probably the most varied and engaging of McMurtry's career. (He self-produced the record.)

Here, almost every track sticks around as music rather than as merely sung literature. The opening "Bayou Tortous" mixes swampy rhythm guitars with slashing metallic lead riffs and scratchy percussion, setting the right atmosphere for the tale of a man "looking at the hole in the bottom of [his] heart." "Freeway View" is launched on an invigorating blend of gutbucket guitar and boogie piano before McMurtry ever utters a word. The title track has the album's best groove, a catchy "heartland rocker" in the Bob Seger/John Mellencamp mold that's really a bemused take on aging and regret.

But the best of Just Us Kids is in the album's more detailed character sketches, songs rich with incident and offhand insight. The Katrina-evoking "Hurricane Party" is a Dylanesque sprawl of impressionistic observations centering on a man waiting out the bad weather at a bar in a decaying town. "I don't want another drink, I only want that last one again," the man thinks while wondering about the status of his house and pets in the storm. "Fireline Road" casts an empathetic eye on an abused, addicted woman living a desperate existence in a duplex on the edge of town. And best of all is the detail-packed "Ruby and Carlos," a regretful epic that begins with a break-up ("I can't go back to Tennessee, that NASCAR country's not for me," Ruby tells her musician boyfriend as he leaves for Nashville) and then imagines the separate lives of its estranged lovers.

James McMurtry

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Thursday, June 12th

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