Timing’s everything. When James McMurtry conceived Childish Things—part protest album, mainly roadhouse-jukebox filler—he hadn’t a clue that Cindy Sheehan and her acolytes would soon thereafter descend on Crawford, sparking an anti-war (and pro-war) movement in need of a soundtrack. Rallying cry “See the Elephant” finds young ‘uns Pete and Johnny trading in their Sunday suits for Navy Blues, as a fiddle and horn guide them to Richmond circa the Civil War. In contrast, “We Can’t Make It Here” complements visions of the aftermath with a pounding of Bush, whose old gubernatorial stomping ground, Austin, is where James, son of Lonesome Dove author Larry, has been cutting records for 15 years.
Buried in his album’s marathon of verses about a legless Vietnam vet, minimum-wage woes, and sundry repercussions of the current administration’s socioeconomic ineptitude, James snarls in his ever present Lou Reed monotone: “Will work for food, will die for oil/Will kill for power, and to us the spoils.” Justifiably fired up for, or fed up with, the battlefield, James strives for common ground in “Memorial Day,” a hokey apple-pie anthem encouraging y’all to remember our fallen heroes by, uh, driving slowly. Hooray for patriotism! But what about the smoking, drinking, plight-of-the-marginalized tracks that made guitarist James, helped along by bass-drums duo the Heartless Bastards, a poet of the people in his parts? They’re hard to hear above the sound of war.
James McMurtry plays Mercury Lounge October 22.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2005