The Austin Chronicle

James Mcmurtry

June 20, 1997, Music

It Had to Happen (Sugar Hill)

In the ongoing parlor game of `Match the Texas Songwriter to his Appropriate Literary Precursor,' James McMurtry could play a perfect Joseph Conrad to Townes Van Zandt's Walt Whitman, Guy Clark's Mark Twain, and Lyle Lovett's Oscar Wilde. Stacking labyrinthine plots on top of shady characters, sung in a voice reminiscent of Todd Snider and Go to Blazes' Ted Warren, McMurtry's songs are more interior dramatic monologues than jukebox singalongs. McMurtry's tools are a hard-bitten sense of humor, a pragmatic take on relationships, and a playwright's ear for dialogue -- plus his dad Larry's knack for spinning a yarn. He shares with Conrad a nebulous, vaguely paranoiac sense of the word `they,' as on "Paris" ("You're doin' your best Bogart/and they can't even tell"), and "12 O'Clock Whistle" ("Drivin' through niggertown/best lock all your doors/though we're really not supposed to call them that anymore"). McMurtry, evoking Talking Heads and Timbuk3 on "Sixty Acres" as his uncle's plot of land "looks like a Wal-Mart waiting to happen," has more important things on his mind than being politically correct. Like, as he wonders on "Be With Me," "Are the songs real or did you make them up?" They're real all right. Sometimes disturbing, with perhaps a little too much heart of darkness, but never fake.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray

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