James McMurtry- Childish Things
The problem with most singer-songwriters is that no matter how personal, universal, fantastic, or most often romantic the yarns they weave, sooner or later the credibility gap comes into play: Something they say or do reminds you it’s just a story being told by a teller. The few really good ones separate themselves from the pack by telling a story so convincing, you think they lived it, whether or not they really did.
James McMurtry is one of the really good ones, and it’s not just his droll, road-weary, half-spoken croon, a distinctive delivery often compared to Lou Reed, only rural and stringed with barbed-wire. It’s in the subject matter. Dude knows how to set up a scene and make it feel lived-in.
The writing chops are in the blood. His father Larry is the living embodiment of Texas letters. A few years ago, the writer Grover Lewis told me how Larry McMurtry’s father was so displeased with his son’s literary ambitions, he tried to work it out of him on the family ranch on his college breaks. James has some of that in his blood too, and it seeps out in the intimate blue-collar perspective of “We Can’t Make It Here”, a string of personal stories from regular folks marginalized by Big Business’ exportation of jobs overseas in cahoots with Big Government. Similarly, “Six Year Drought” will have you believing his lips are cracked and bleeding.
So it is throughout, starting with “See The Elephant”, a joyous slice of simple pleasures a hundred years ago, through grimy sketches of contemporary urban rot and finding a sense of place in a town more than a thousand years old to the somber highway meditation, “Holiday”.
McMurtry got my attention with “Levelland”, but not so much for the story as for his choice of the obscure High Plains town as fertile subject matter. With Childish Things, he’s keeping it for good, and it ain’t just because Pocatello is the new Levelland.