Just Us Kids
Listening to a James McMurtry record isn’t so much about playing “spot the influence” (though there is some of that). The Texas singer-songwriter has been around long enough to qualify as an American original in his own right (it’s been nearly 20 years since his debut Too Long in the Wasteland.) It’s more about playing “spot the ghosts of McMurtry’s back catalog.” Isn’t that the same melody he’s used several times before? Hasn’t he used that same guitar sound and groove a million times as well?
But if McMurtry rarely surprises with his musical motifs, he remains one of the sharpest lyricists on the planet, providing colorful, telling details about the usual variety of backwoods losers and fringe characters that populate his songs. He sings these tunes in a voice that, though it may be lacking in range and technical virtuosity, always seems to suit the bone-dry humor and personality of his sly ruminations. And after nearly two decades it’s clear he’s still got a few more tricks up his sleeve and more stories to tell.
That was certainly true on his last record, 2005’s Childish Things, which included arguably the most devastating protest song of the 21st century, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore.” McMurtry’s activism extends to his latest as well with “God Bless America” detailing the greed and thirst for oil that brought us the Iraq war. There is also “Cheney’s War,” which (appropriately) borrows a groove from Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib figure into the song, which includes the chorus: “You’re the man. Show ‘em what you’re made of. You’re no longer Daddy’s boy. You’re the man that they’re all afraid of. But you’re only Cheney’s toy.”
But if those relatively heavy political tunes serve as the record’s centerpiece, there are a number of other tunes here that are perhaps more likely to keep you coming back for repeat listening. I can envision a better world in which the title track is a huge hit single with its nagging riff and familiarly self-deluding characters whose dreams die hard as they get older.
Then there is the 12-string guitar-fed “Fireline Road,” which — though it tells a very different story — shares something of a structure with Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley.” Van Zandt is a perennial touchstone for McMurtry and a huge influence on his dusty Texas tales.
And the acoustic story song “Ruby and Carlos” has one of the album’s best lines: “I can’t go back to Tennessee. That NASCAR country’s not for me.”
It helps that Just Us Kids also sounds great (though perhaps not as fleshed out as Childish Things). McMurtry produces himself here, working not only with his longtime crackerjack rhythm section of Daren Hess and Ronnie Johnson, but also a handful of famous friends. Ian McLagan of The Faces contributes piano on several tracks including the rollicking “Freeway View,” Timbuk3’s Pat MacDonald adds harmonica on “God Bless America” and elsewhere, and fellow Texan Jon Dee Graham’s wailing guitar solo is one of the highlights of “Fireline Road.” There’s even a touch of trumpet on a couple of tracks here.
Still, Just Us Kids will no doubt sound very familiar to anyone who has followed McMurtry’s career so far. You’ll recognize the characters. You’ll recognize the guitar grooves. But you’ll love it all nonetheless. In his own inimitable style, McMurtry continues to tell the stories of a part of America that needs to be told.