Thursday, November 11, 2004

Album Review--James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards, Live in Aught-Three

James McMurtry has been writing some of America's best songs for the last 15 years yet his following is still quite small. I understand that Live in Aught-Three has sold well and I hope to God that this is true. McMurtry's songs resonate with scenes from middle America and not in that sappy bullshit way that bad country songs do. All the wrinkles are there. In "Out Here in the Middle" he talks about the Great Plains as the place where "the center is on the right and William Jennings Bryan preaches every night." Which is true enough. In "Rachel's Song", a song about a down and out mother he sums up the alcoholic creed by describing a drunk and driving accident that should have killed her and she thinks "I ought to give up drinking but I don't believe I will." And his most well-known song, "Levelland" he asks the question that I think anyone who's ever been to the Llano Estacado of eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle wonders about:

"Flatter than a table top
Makes you wonder why they stopped here
Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition, one"

Which is the goddamn truth.

Another great song is "Choctaw Bingo." This album was introduced to me by a friend on a drive back from Las Vegas who said that this song was the best he had heard all year and it's hard to argue. I was getting sick on this drive and was fading and was still in eastern Arizona. Listening to this song got my attention and made me aware of the world again and able to drive back to Santa Fe. It's a crazy family story about the northern Texas-Southwest Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine region, as he describes it. I don't want to give this song away but I will say that it's worth buying the album for this song alone.

As for the music itself, it's basically country-rock-singer-songwriter stuff. The trio is good enough for this music. McMurtry's voice isn't the greatest in the world but it works with this band. It's strong enough and emotional enough to convey the emotional power of a song like "Lights of Cheyenne" and the fun of "Choctaw Bingo."

I can't say enough good things about this album. The songs are just great, great, great. If you are in the mood to buy some music and you're not sure what to get, buy this album. It will be one of the best investments you make this year.