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Rootless people: James McMurtry runs from the wasteland



Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry inevitably is identified in the press as the son of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show). To some extent, these references are merely the consequence of having a famous parent, and McMurtry can probably give thanks that he labors in a far less prominent vineyard and with greater ability than poor Julian Lennon. On the other hand, McMurtry's songs have distinctively literary characteristics that justify the attention to his lineage. His songs tell stories, depicting unassuming, unremarkable people either taking action at a (sometimes literal) crossroads or contending with the consequences of such an action. He's particularly adept at delineating characters, conveying their personalities, values, situations, and concerns in a few brief strokes.

Consider, for instance, "Poor Lost Soul," from McMurtry's debut record, Too Long in the Wasteland. The song's central character has successfully left behind a small-town upbringing and moved to a distant city, to the consternation of his family: "You're at home in the big town / You got it all figured out / Back home they can't believe it / They don't know what you're about." McMurtry provides the provincial background and character traits that underlie the family's prejudices:

Your sister loves Jesus

She drives an Oldsmobile

Says you ought to come visit

Says what you need is a home-cooked meal . . .

Your mother's doing all right

She owns a quick-stop store . . .

Curious whether he can fit into this environment again, the protagonist flies home for Christmas:

It's just like the good old days

Fighting with your mom

Fighting with your sister

Your brother had sense

So he stayed away.

Enlightened, the protagonist returns to the more compatible environment of the city, with McMurtry's droll assurance that "they'll be praying for your poor lost soul."

In just a few minutes McMurtry provides the listener with a plausible account of familial and cultural conflict, complete with characterizations, climax, and denouement. What's missing from "Poor Lost Soul," as from many of McMurtry's recorded works, is a compelling reason for the listener's interest. "So what?" a college professor of mine used to ask about the material in his American short-story survey. His question forced us beyond the story's ingredients to consider its purpose, and indirectly demanded that such a purpose exist.

McMurtry's songs are often inconclusive, their intentions obscure. Unlike the middle-aged married man shaken by news of an old flame's marriage in Paul Kelly's "I Had Forgotten You," or the anguished narrator waiting with his girlfriend for her abortion appointment in Dave Alvin's "Plastic Rose," McMurtry's characters rarely get beneath the surface of an experience to illuminate the emotions involved. Nor do his songs convey much insight, however small or quiet, about that experience. On Too Long in the Wasteland and his recent second release, Candyland, McMurtry mainly acts as a dispassionate observer, content to sketch the outlines of a situation and leave its meaning, or his opinion of it, largely up to the listener to infer. This lack of involvement is compounded by his detached, laconic drawl. As a result, though he traffics in the country-folk-blues-derived rock for which I'm often reflexively enthusiastic, I've found his records insubstantial and unsatisfying.

So McMurtry's forceful and committed recent performance at the Park West was impressive, a deeply enjoyable revelation to me. On the records, which John Mellencamp and his guitarist Michael Wanchic produced, the radio-friendly clatter and strum of Mellencamp's band obscured McMurtry's material, making his songs seem that much more slight. Performing solo at the Park West, with only his guitar for accompaniment, McMurtry was allowed--or forced--to find the heart of his songs and drive them home. Throughout he sang with more conviction than on his records, often becoming aggressive, standing taut before the microphone as if he wanted to punch the song through it. This approach led to the performance's only significant flaw, as the volume of McMurtry's vocals at times became overwhelming. In quieter moments, however, this intensity gave his songs the emotional depth missing on the studio versions. McMurtry's most effective works tend to be first-person narratives, and at the Park West he more fully inhabited the personas he'd invented. As a tourist in Mexico on "Safe Side," he communicated the absurd paranoid stereotyping, wrathful defensiveness, and arrogance of the sort of Ugly American who probably thinks Pat Buchanan's call for walling off the U.S.-Mexico border is a good idea. On "Vague Directions" he captured the envy and resentment of an aging local instructing a young visitor, expressing the narrator's sense of youth's loss: "And the light shines long ago / On the cold December snow / And the river runs on through the past / I can see it in the bottom of the glass."

For a fellow whose appeal is dour lyrics, McMurtry displayed a droll sense of humor, coming off as a southwestern version of Steven Wright as he deadpanned "We've been to Canada, where tens of people thronged to see me" and, tuning his guitar, "Wood doesn't think very fast. It takes to the middle of the next song to figure out there's not as much tension as there used to be, so it starts to move . . . and bad things happen." Unassuming and low-key, he established a chummy rapport with an audience whose yelled song requests were at times annoying. When a fan who had badgered him repeatedly for "Talking at the Texaco" called out his thanks after he performed it, McMurtry responded kindly, "My pleasure."

McMurtry also displayed an unanticipated level of musicianship: his tasteful, sharply punctuated guitar playing and bright, liquid tone created rich textures and stamped out insistent rhythms. Nothing on his records hints at the musical skill McMurtry showed here, as he recast songs in different musical genres and delivered on those arrangements with skillful finger picking. He took "Vague Directions" at a slow, halting swing, creating a seductive anticipation between the song's delayed beats, and gave "Safe Side" a credible flamenco styling, including a brief instrumental flourish. "Talking at the Texaco" was briskly rolling boogie-woogie, McMurtry biting off his vocals at a breakneck pace.

Strengthened musically and layered against each other in performance, McMurtry's songs gathered depth and meaning. He sang 19 of them (all but 2 were from Too Long in the Wasteland and Candyland), and as he did the concerns and themes of his work became more apparent until a cohesive, thorough worldview emerged. At its heart is a sense that rootlessness is an essential aspect of human life, a belief McMurtry made explicit in "I'm Not From Here," his coltish paean to displacement:

We can't help it

We just keep moving

It's been that way since long ago

Since the Stone Age, chasing the great herds

We mostly go where we have to go

The song drew an enthusiastic response from the Park West crowd, which presumably shared the narrator's transplanted condition.

Such rootlessness, however, has a cost, as became clear in the concert's emotional centerpiece, a devastating rendition of "Angeline." The narrator lives in "a little town / Where I never meant to settle down," but he is not so peaceably resolved about his situation as the narrator in "I'm Not From Here." A farmer in east Texas, he's reminded by the sound of a passing train how he came to this place one autumn, met Angeline, and took a job as her father's farmhand, thinking "it would do for a while." Circumstance, in the form of Angeline's pregnancy ("Your dresses fit tighter / With the spring in the air" McMurtry sings with haunting, lovely indirection), makes the arrangement permanent. His father-in-law now dead, "our children all scattered," and his relationship with Angeline not so much soured as exhausted ("We used up the lightning, now we don't bother fighting / Such things will happen in time"), the narrator is profoundly troubled: "Angeline, Angeline / Darker nights I've never seen . . . / Where I can't find my sleep / In the shadows so deep and dark / As the doubts in my mind." Though the empty present is the source of his conflict, his focus is on how he reached this point--a process, McMurtry makes clear, marked by chance and a lack of volition.

"People don't live or die / People just float," Bob Dylan contended a few years ago. McMurtry expresses a similar sense of life's arbitrariness--the understanding that people often cede their lives to external forces--with the metaphor "painting by numbers," the title of his best-known song. The narrator in "Angeline," the MIT graduate student in "Painting by Numbers," and "Terry," a juvenile inmate serving time for involuntary manslaughter, all lack control over their lives. Circumstances determine their fate.

The worst failures of self-determination in McMurtry's work are the cases of complete psychological collapse. In "Where's Johnny," a high school whiz kid cracks up in college and winds up living with his parents into his 30s: "He reads a lot of poetry and plays / He'll sit out in the back yard / And not say a word to anyone for days." It's also more a disturbed mental state than a geographical place that McMurtry describes in the taut, harrowing "Too Long in the Wasteland":

Hear the trucks on the highway

And the ticking of the clocks

There's a ghost of a moon in the afternoon

Bullet holes in the mailbox

Bullet holes in the mailbox

Key holes in my mind

Too long in the wasteland

Too long in the wasteland

And falling behind

The sight of a jet trail stirs him to rise above his condition, but like Johnny the song's narrator isn't going anywhere. McMurtry concludes, "I've been / Too long in the wasteland / Too long in the wasteland / I believe I'll have to stay."

"The wasteland," incidentally, is Larry McMurtry's nickname for his Texas home, according to a press release. If "Too Long in the Wasteland" is in any way autobiographical, it suggests that self-determination for the younger McMurtry includes overcoming the forces of family and home--home seems a place to flee ("Poor Lost Soul"), lest its weight pin and crush those in its pull ("Where's Johnny"). Both works hint at how familial expectations can be destructive and/or repellent to whoever bears their brunt, as when McMurtry describes how Johnny's mother "Polishes the trophies / That he won back when they thought he'd save the world." In "Poor Lost Soul" the tension between the family and the individual lines up along the border dividing the country and the city, and songs like "Vague Directions" and "Talking at the Texaco" ("It's a small town / We can't sell you no beer / It's a small town, so / May I ask what you're doin' here") depict small-town life as provincial and intolerant, qualities not conducive to unfettered development.

To establish a healthy life and self, however, it is not enough simply to avoid emotional entanglements. Emerging from a period of excess, nights of "screams and laughter" that lead to "cracking the blinds to the noonday sun," the protagonist of "Save Yourself" must keep others at arm's length in order to manage her life: "It's all you can handle just to stay okay . . . you've got no room for baggage." This strategy allows her to function, to keep a new job and an old car up and running, but something is missing. "The hot wind off the concrete still keeps you awake at night," McMurtry sings. "You've got your life all figured out / But you still don't get much sleep." The alternative to drifting, to living from one circumstance to another, two new songs from Candyland suggest, is a deliberate, chosen intimacy. "You've been a long time / Locked inside / A long time on a lonely ride," McMurtry sings on the tender, lovely "Don't Waste Away," offering not panaceas to a troubled woman friend but understanding and companionship. On "Dusty Pages," the record's last selection and the first of three songs McMurtry performed as encores, the offer becomes a request: "Would you be my friend through the ages."

Quiet and understated, these declarations of love's possibility don't in themselves resolve the obstacles to human fulfillment, but pat answers are the province of fairy tales anyway. Serious story telling is complex and ambiguous--and being 30 McMurtry still has plenty of time, if he chooses, to explore how these promises might be fulfilled. He still needs to realize his stories more fully, to flesh them out into the organic whole that "Where's Johnny" approaches but "Save Yourself" does not. More important, however, is the thoroughgoing idea of human experience underlying his work. However incomplete on their own, taken as a whole his stories gain weight and depth, and make for an impressive, satisfying collection.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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