Featured Music: Wednesday, November 09, 2005
With his new c.d., ‘Childish Things,’ James McMurtry deals with his Bush-Cheney blues.
James McMurtry
With Stephen Pointer, tomorrow (Thu) at the Aardvark, 2905 W Berry St, FW. 817-926-7814. Tickets available at www.frontgatetickets.com.
No Fortunate Son

While his father may be rich and powerful, Americana singer-songwriter James McMurtry is blue-collar to the bone.


Since his major label debut in 1989, singer-songwriter James McMurtry has been consistently hailed as a conscientious crafter of tunes that emphasize character over ooey-gooey confessionalism. Since star author Larry McMurtry is his dad, the Fort Worth-born, Austin-based musician probably can’t escape having his songs surveyed from a literary perspective. Many critics agreed early on, though, that singing wasn’t really James’ bag. In much of his early work, he just sort of laconically bobbed his way through the lyrics, in a way that was closer to reciting than making music.

McMurtry’s commanding new c.d., Childish Things, reveals that his sometimes- tepid tenor has come closer to a more solidly musical baritone. And while he still ain’t no Nat King Cole, the tenderness and outrage that inflect these dozen tunes make the children, soldiers, and laborers he sings about all the more vividly accessible.

“I stopped smoking three packs a day, and I started caring about how to use my breath,” the 43-year-old said. “As you get older and find yourself doing another 20 shows consecutively, you figure out you’d better start taking care of yourself.”

Indeed, at the same time McMurtry has found his voice on his seventh disc, he’s also discovered something that makes him wanna holler: Call it the Bush-Cheney blues, if you like. McMurtry’s ominous, angry, and wide-ranging rant, “We Can’t Make It Here,” has been burning up the internet for nearly a year now in one form or another; Childish Things marks the song’s official release. While it’s overlong at seven minutes, the tune details the grittiness of a working class that’s besieged by shitty economic policies and a war that they are disproportionately fighting. (“Hey there, Mr. CEO / See how far $5.15 an hour will go / Take a part-time job at one of your stores / You’ll see you can’t make it here anymore.”)

“For a long time, I thought any kind of politics would mess up my art,” McMurtry said. “But it’s gotten to the point where things are out of hand. I figure I have a microphone, a recording contract, and I have people who’ll put my songs on the internet.

“This is not all black and white for me,” he continued. “I happen to agree with some aspects of conservatism, but you can make really a good case that these guys aren’t conservatives.”

Along with singers like Joan Baez, McMurtry performed earlier this year at Camp Casey, Cindy Sheehan’s activist compound outside the president’s Crawford ranch. McMurtry said that the press, early on, very much mischaracterized that scene as a return to hippiedom. “The first supporters who rallied around Cindy and marched with her were war veterans,” he said. “They were with this group called Veterans for Peace. I’ve played benefits for them. In most of what I saw, the word ‘veteran’ was barely mentioned in connection with Camp Casey.”

Now McMurtry routinely employs a rap against certain Bush policies during his live shows. He said he understands that a lot of people just want to escape the partisan cacophony when they pay to see a concert, so potential ticketbuyers should be forewarned that, for the time being, the subject may come up. But he said that people often only complain about politics in their entertainment when they disagree with those politics — do any of Toby Keith’s fans gripe when he starts yammering about kicking Iraq’s ass?

All this begs the question: Have assorted tree-huggers, whale-savers, and anti-capitalists besieged McMurtry with requests to speak out on their causes, assuming they have him pegged? “So far, it hasn’t been too bad,” he said. “If I don’t want to do something, I won’t do it just because someone expects me to.”

McMurtry feels strongly that he shares certain iconoclastic tendencies with papa Larry. The McMurtry men have entered 2005 on the progressive side of two furious national divides: James has burnished his credentials as an unabashedly activist artist who believes the planning for the war in Iraq was corrupt to the core, while Larry’s screenplay adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s achingly passionate gay cowboy romance, Brokeback Mountain (due out in December), proves that the red-state West isn’t all hetero. “Larry isn’t trying to take a stand,” the younger McMurtry said. “He just knew Annie had written a great American love story” — a statement that sounds a bit like a stand itself in this era of anti-gay marriage referenda.

“Larry’s a myth-breaker,” the son said. “I try to be, too. That’s why I could’ve never started my career in Nashville. They cherish their myths too much. I could never sing ‘So Long To My Ole Homestead’ because I know what happened to the ol’ homestead — grandpa nearly killed himself with alcohol, and granddaughter used her power of attorney to pull it out from underneath him and sell it.”

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