Deep roots

James McMurtry gives life to the near-dead out in the flat lands

James McMurtry has always returned home, no matter how far he strayed from it. He was born in Fort Worth in 1962, but left the city when he was young after his parents divorced: his mother moved to Richmond, Virginia, to take a job as an English professor, and James moved to Houston with his father Larry, who was teaching creative writing at Rice. When he was 16, James was sent off to a boarding school in Virginia; four years later, he found himself in Madrid, Spain, as a teacher's aide. As he grew older, he bounced around the country--from the University of Arizona in Tucson, all the way to Talkeetna, Alaska.

He finally returned to Texas in 1984, going home to Larry's spread in Wichita Falls and then to San Antonio and then to his current home of Austin. When asked if his return to Texas was inevitable--if he was drawn back to his native land--he says it was "just something I wanted to do."

"I felt I was pulled away from here," he says. "We moved to Virginia in 1969, and for a while there we kinda felt like expatriates. After a while I got into it, it was OK, but it was rougher adjustment for Larry. I don't guess he ever did adjust. I remember when we first moved up there he kept getting speeding tickets because the speed limit was already 55, and he was used to it being 70--so he'd always go 80, 'cause that was the normal thing to do in North Texas.

"I don't know Fort Worth hardly at all. It's kind of a shadow town to me. It's got a cool feel, but I really like Houston. I remember Houston a lot, from when I was five or six years old drivin' around in the back seat of a car stuffed full of people because in those days, that's one of the things people used to do for fun--see how many people they could pile in the car and go somewhere for the sake of goin'."

James McMurtry's third album, Where'd You Hide the Body, is replete with characters bound to the land and their sad, lonely existences. They watch the world pass them by, their escapes only temporary, their fates sealed before they are even born. Some are stuck in Texas, some in nameless and anonymous places; some of his characters are ambitious, some are just desperate, some are beaten so hard by the land until they just give up. They have been abandoned by husbands and lovers, by hopes and dreams.

In the world of James McMurtry--much like the landscape created by his father Larry in The Last Picture Show--there exists no there, only a very desolate and hopeless here. His 1989 debut was titled Too Long in the Wasteland; its 1992 successor was titled Candyland. But wasteland or candyland, both were the same place.

In the new "Levelland" off Where'd You Hide the Body, McMurtry sings in the voice of a man stuck in a place "flatter than a flat top," the kind of place where you can't imagine how settlers would ever think to stop. "Wagon must have lost a wheel, or they lacked ambition one," he reasons. This character longs for escape--"I won't be here when there comes a day it all dries up and blows away"--as he watches airplanes fly overhead to a better place far away, but he is stranded. The only thing stronger than his hope is his hopelessness; he is driven by his desire to flee, just as he is kept in place by roots that run too deep.

In "Off and Running," McMurtry assumes the voice of someone who wants to leave "to take what's mine," who insists he won't be "caught this time." But it's only a dream: he, too, is not free from the confines of an unhappy marriage, a broken home, a mundane and unrewarding life in a place that sucks the meaning out of one's existence. "What became of the life I knew," he asks, watching the "bugs as they bounce off the light" in the middle of the night.

Even those characters who do escape are inexplicably drawn back to their homes, if only to check in and see what they've left, to see if they've missed anything. In "One More Winter"--a song in which McMurtry assumes the voice of two characters with surprising success--a man escapes his hometown "chasing after what was mine"; he explains that if he had been forced to spend one more winter there, it surely would have been his last. "I just came back to see if I was ever here," he explains.

But a friend--or maybe a family member, maybe even a lover or a wife--chastises him for coming back, even if it's for a brief visit. Because when he left, he not only abandoned the town but the people who needed him; his escape was also his betrayal, and now there is no parade welcoming him home and no red carpet rolled out at his feet. "We got along without you, just as best as we could," he is told, and it is a forceful farewell.

"I always tended to write on the darker side of whatever I'm writin' about," McMurtry says. "It's more believable. it's harder to write something positive without bein' a cheerleader. Cheerleaders have always bugged me. But I think this record has a little light in the dark in that the characters aren't quite as resigned to their miserable fates. They are more willing to do something about. it. Least I think so."

James McMurtry performs June 23 at Poor David's Pub.

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