His Songs? Bleak. His Future? Bright.

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

MADISON, Ind. -- Figuring that his well-traveled touring van was past due for an oil change, James McMurtry thought about looking for a Jiffy Lube when he pulled into town for the night's gig. But then he got a better idea. "First order of business, I'm gonna see if they have beer in the Mexican restaurant behind the hotel," he said.

So here is the Texas-born singer-songwriter-guitarist, slumped in a booth at Los Compadres, plucking the jalapeƱos from a plate of nachos in between sips of cheap Mexican beer while a couple nearby bickers about what to watch on television later. The restaurant is tucked behind the Best Western, hard by State Road 62 in an Ohio River Valley town that hasn't quite been the same since the steamboat boom went bust. There's a pickup with an enormous Dale Earnhardt window sticker parked outside. At the next table, a family is making plans to reconvene at the Wal-Mart down the road. Ranchera music blares over the speakers.

McMurtry, a famously caustic observer of Americana, murmurs: "It's pretty bleak."

This is precisely the sort of scene that might show up in a James McMurtry song. When he's not ranting about the screwy state of the union -- something he's been doing with increasing frequency -- McMurtry specializes in trenchant character sketches set in the vast nothingness of rural America.

It's an improbably colorful place as he packs his story-songs with novelistic detail and observations about fascinatingly ordinary people and fantastic fringe characters. It may or may not be a genetic gift: He's the son of the famous writer Larry McMurtry.

His lyrics focus on broken dreams and hard realities. "I tend to look at the dark cloud behind the silver lining," he says. (The songwriter Robert Earl Keen says that when McMurtry sits down to write, it's as if "another tragedy is about to unfold.")

Whatever he is -- bard in a bar band; songwriter's songwriter; hell, writer's writer (Stephen King will talk your ear off about him) -- McMurtry, at 46, has crafted one of the year's best albums in "Just Us Kids," which artfully mixes provocative portraits with political screeds, including the Bush-bashing "Cheney's Toy."

This after 2005's "Childish Things" was named album of the year at the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards. McMurtry's protest anthem, "We Can't Make It Here," was also named song of the year. (McMurtry performs Friday at the Birchmere.)

Critical acclaim is nothing new for the roots-rock artist, whose first album, 1989's "Too Long in the Wasteland," was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the year's best debuts. The album prompted rock critic Robert Christgau to write in the Village Voice that McMurtry is "gonna be a prestige item, just you wait."

After nearly 20 years -- a period during which McMurtry was dropped by Columbia Records on account of low sales, then wandered from independent label to independent label -- the wait appears to be over. Eight albums into his career as a critical darling, his fan base is suddenly swelling.

"We're selling more seats and selling more records now," McMurtry says through clenched teeth, which is how he says pretty much everything (and how he sings, too). Almost indifferently, he adds: "It's energizing."

And then: "It's also an uncomfortable position. We're filling clubs that we used to not fill. But we're still in clubs."

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