With his first album, 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland, James McMurtry created the template that he has followed his whole musical career: a guitar-based country sound, less Nash Vegas and more Nashbury Park; elegant, laconic wordsmithery about a young man’s fear of growing older and a country boy’s chafing at small-town smallness even as he enjoys the view. Saint Mary of the Woods, McMurtry’s sixth release, is the first of his albums that he’s produced himself,
taking the reins from such old pros as John Mellencamp, Don Dixon, and Lloyd Maines. It shows that the Texan has finally grown into his darkly nostalgic Western wear; at 40, he’s now old enough to credibly look homeward. Saint Mary is a mature, refined album of diverse, sometimes humorous, sometimes gloomy portraits. Granted, they’re
studio portraits, for good or ill. The elegiac title track, for example, portrays a shattered diva (“Where are you going/Brandy on your breath/Bottle’s open, spilled across the desk/Snifter’s broken, smashed against the wall”) from a literary distance: McMurtry’s slightly hangdog baritone and the shimmering, Pro Tooled setting keep the listener out of harm’s way. The fuzzed-up “Lobo Town” cuts to the diagnosis right off the bat (“Grand Daddy’s good name/Fits like a shackle and a chain”) and then catalogs the sickness of a drugged-up rich boy with a 2/4 beat that keeps things moving along as gracefully as McMurtry’s narrative skill. It’s worth noting that McMurtry seldom bothers to sing; his metier is a Lou Reed-ish patter that hits a deadpan precision. He doesn’t sound as if he doesn’t believe the stories he tells—which is probably why they’re so easy to enjoy. Even when he rhapsodizes about a pair of kissing cousins on the rockabilly family-reunion epic “Choctaw Bingo,” it’s amusing rather than appalling: “I want to get between ’em/With a great big ol’ hard-on like a old Bois d’Arc fence post/You could hang a pipe-rail gate from/Do some sister twisters ’til the cows come home.” Indeed, the singer is so entertaining that I figure his shallow shadow brother is due for at least as much of a good time as McMurtry gives us with his tales. —Pamela Murray Winters
McMurtry performs at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 21, at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.