May 01, 2011

James McMurtry at the Freight&Salvage

I caught James McMurtry's act at the Freight & Salvage last week in Berkeley. Went by myself, which turned out to be oddly appropriate given that so many of his songs are about the essential loneliness of his own life and that of Americans in general. Songs like "Holiday," a bleak recounting of the hopelessness of forced intimacy and bonhomie of relatives thrown together periodically by red dates on the calendar. James is the son of the famous writer Larry McMurtry, and I don't suppose that's a particularly easy thing to be, scion of the creative force who produced Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.

James, however, has his father's eye for the naturalistic or emotional detail which captures the essence of a scene or feeling. A few lyrics about a freight train passing in the gloom of twilight out on the Great Plains with "half an inch of snow on the coal cars." Or the rowdy white trash saga about his Uncle Slayton in "Choctaw Bingo," where he sings of a family reunion up somewhere north of Oklahoma, and where one family (presumably his) drives north from Texas after the kids in the back seat are tranquilized with a little vodka in their cherry cola on the way there, and with Benadryl as the additive on the way back.

James brought the house down with a "medley of his hit," the searing "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," all about the hollowing-out of the American economy, the deracinated dispiritedness of a country which had come to rely on modern manufacturing but had had the props kicked out from underneath it by offshoring, and by the resulting joblessness, hopelessness, drug abuse, and reliance on the military to provide "jobs" that the private sector no longer comes up with. So a listless Middle America looks at the shuttered factories, the "For Rent" signs in the city center and at the malls as they drive to Wal-Mart to buy a shirt, "made in Singapore, because we can't make it here anymore."

The Texastentialist is a good guitar player, a good singer, and reminiscent, if I were going to compare him to anybody, to a roughneck cross between Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, but without any of Springsteen's faux-commoner shtick wrapped up in glitzy commercial packaging. Which means, of course, in this day and age, in America, that James, unlike his dad, remains obscure, even after barnstorming around the country and Europe for twenty years. Well hell, 99% of the American population has never read The Last Picture Show, either.

I was glad when the show was over. I'm a little too familiar, personally, with the themes and personalities of the white trash anthems like "Choctaw Bingo" to be entirely comfortable with them, and in general McMurtry just hits a little too close to home for any of us. This is "entertainment" of a particularly difficult kind. Life in modern America is a mess and he gets it all down. What happens, he seems to be asking, when you take away those old folkways down in Texas and elsewhere, when people would sit out on the front porch at night and watch the stars come out as entertainment; and they stop doing that because they've now got satellite TV and jobs in town at the mill or factory; and then you get rid of all the jobs, and the folkways of mutual reliance and comfort are gone, too, and the star-watching is gone in favor of the satellite for as long as you can keep it hooked up? He writes about such things in "Level-land," "Small Town" and in all his songs, really. I suppose you wind up with a country that looks like modern America, where the ethos of extreme financial and emotional independence worked well when the economy was the envy of the world. But kind of a bitch when the bottom falls out.

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