Reviewed by Christopher Hess, Fri., Sept. 13, 2002
James McMurtrySt. Mary of the Woods (Sugar Hill)
As the new overtakes and displaces the old, the world changes. An obvious truth, sure, but also a source of constant inspiration and vexation for James McMurtry. The lyrics of many of this Austin singer-songwriter's compositions address said alteration of the landscape, especially those on the bold and stirring St. Mary of the Woods. And yet he isn't bitter or heartbroken about it; in true dry and humorous McMurtry fashion, the voices of these songs acknowledge the necessity and the inevitability of this ugly evolution, flipping the bird at it nonetheless. From opener "Dry River" to the raucous closing ramble "Choctaw Bingo," all that's old and worthwhile is beaten down, replaced by the new, cheap, and temporary, and all the noble and dirty citizens of this very Texas world can do is shake their heads and get by best they can. As a songwriter and guitarist, McMurtry only gets better as he gets older. He's one to whom the word "wise" can be applied in all sincerity, whether he'd like that or not. His angry songs ("Lobo Town" and "Red Dress") scowl, while his sad songs ("Out Here in the Middle" and "Broken Bed") weep with a dignity few songwriters manage. Plus, St. Mary showcases his road band at top form, particularly Ronnie Johnson's backup vocals and the generous splash of piano in the mix. As long as James McMurtry keeps writing these worlds and singing these characters, those who love literate music will have reason to rejoice.