James Mcmurtry

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

| it's easy to see why John Cougar Mellencamp fell in love with Texan singer-songwriter James McMurtry. Having little authenticity himself to speak of, producing a record by novelist Larry McMurtry's son was the next best thing. Like Dad, James has a way of making Southern myths sound both real and immediate, and his 1989 album, "Too Long in the Wasteland," indeed rang true, with catchy and harsh country-folk songs filled with tortured Southern souls failing at love, failing at life or just talking about it in front of the gas station on a country road.

On his fourth album, "It Had to Happen," McMurtry's world-weary characters appear again, but there's a sense now that he has spread himself too thin, like he's running out of myths and compelling ways to write about them. In a grizzled monotone -- what Lou Reed would sound like if he grew up in Texarkana -- and lazy electric guitar style that stretches most of the songs past the five-minute mark, his characters become dull and faceless, posed and sepia-toned instead of vibrant. Although his points about love and other social disasters are well taken, his slackened approach on "No More Buffalo" or "Jaws of Life" strips the songs of their energy, simply telegraphing their subtle hooks instead of embellishing them.

His characters are often clichis -- Madonna/whore complexes abound, along with grandmas hanging out wash, newfangled contraptions (like airplanes, or Wal-Marts), family ghosts and Strange New Places (like Paris, or, as on "12 O'Clock Whistle," what that mythical grandma calls "Niggertown," where you lock your car doors). With themes this hackneyed, you're hoping that McMurtry phrases his stories in a way that makes them mean, but he rarely does; only on the tough boogie of "Sixty Acres," or the grand, lovelorn chorus of "Stancliff's Lament" does he manage to pull it off. Songs, McMurtry seems to have forgotten, aren't novels -- they can't carry the weight of his intricate tale-telling, and he gives them no immediate impact.

As for authenticity, McMurtry's learned his lesson from Mellencamp, hiring a collection of pros who add a tasteful twang to the sound -- perfect for tasteful yuppies who don't like their authenticity too raw or challenging. But that's faux-Americana for you, the sort of thing McMurtry now sadly trucks in. What's that word they use in the South to describe that sort of thing ... hogwash?

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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