James McMurtry – Candyland (1992)

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James McMurtry is not only novelist Larry McMurtry’s boy, he’s pals with John Mellencamp. As it happens, both play a role in McMurtry’s second record.

Not surprisingly, James can write — though (as with other challenging vocalists like, say, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits) he’s perhaps an acquired taste. McMurtry’s singer-songwriter style can sometimes come off as flat, like the Delta or a piece of Texas desert, yet similarly it’s by no means featureless.

His easy, prairie-long gaze is as sharp as it is specific, however, both here and on his debut, 1989’s terrific (but perhaps less musically developed) “Too Long in the Wasteland.”

That same year, Mellencamp (who was involved with both recording sessions) released “Big Daddy,” where he explored twang-and-roll as well as themes far removed from whether Jack was still dating Diane. Where it initially felt like a left turn when Mellencamp (nee Cougar) spruced up his stuff with Lisa Germano’s fiddle, by the time of “Candyland,” he was completely inhabiting this new phase — and in a great position to help introduce newer voices in the genre like McMurtry.

Thing is, McMurtry immediately makes this sound his own, collaborating from the beginning like hand in glove — or, I guess, more precisely: foot in boot. He writes in a way that Mellencamp still occasionally aspires to, speaking plainly and directly about simple concerns.

Former Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff and sometime guitar collaborator David Grissom also show up, and give weight to these acoustic-based musings. Aronoff is a one-whomp metronome, something that eventually led to his ouster from John’s band, but Grissom is reliably revelatory.

Around a loping riff on “Safe Side,” for instance, McMurtry ruminates on the haves and the have nots: “Down in Piedras Negras you gotta watch yourself/ There’s a whole lotta hungry people lookin to share some wealth/ And when the oilfield’s busted and the peso takes a dive/ Stay off the side streets if you wanna come back alive.”

“The Good Life,” as you might imagine, is about every-day pleasures, and the way lives slowly build into a legacy. Later, on “Dusty Pages,” McMurtry looks back on that life, trying to hold on to treasured memories.

This is a quietly intriguing album, with insights that drift up to the surface. McMurtry, we know now, had only just begun making steel-toe tapping records that take a while to sink in.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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