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The portraits of American men on James McMurtry’s album “The Horses and the Hounds” are so vivid, complex, and funny that I nearly missed his chilling reference to the more than 30,000 veterans who have died by suicide since the launch of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The veterans (men and women both) make a brief appearance at a nameless halftime, trotted out “to help us sell the show” before “dying by their own hands / for reasons they don’t know.” The scene occurs in “Operation Never Mind,” McMurtry’s scathing song about the ways the American public has for years ignored our deadly wars overseas.
To back up a step, I’ve been fascinated with McMurtry’s 2021 album for the way it explores the textured grooves of everyday life. McMurtry, a longtime Texas singer-songwriter (and the son of a celebrated Western novelist), has a voice cracked and ragged with experience. His recent music mines the daily dramas of aging with an ear for detail and biting turns of phrase. Many of the stories are quite ordinary, which makes the veterans in “Operation Never Mind” all the more striking. Not everyone gets the chance to grow old.
I’ve always been drawn to music that skews older than I am, listening in high school to Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, Merle Haggard, and such. I think in part I was looking for visions of manhood I could try to live into, visions that express ego and ambition but also an awareness of the wider world; visions of desire and longing but not only teenage crushes; visions of anger against meanness and injustice but not anger that is flattening or debilitating.
As I close in on 40 this year, I’ve discovered McMurtry’s album and love the way he takes aging seriously but not too seriously. He stares his failings in the eye but doesn’t get stuck on them. He’s got a sharp sense of self but also understands that it’s our relationships that make us who we are. “Keep me from drifting far off to sea,” he sings to a lover on “Canola Fields,” the majestic opening track, ”or I’ll be lost out there.“
The line appears in a tale of old flames reconnecting after decades apart: “Cashing in on a thirty-year crush / you can’t be young and do that / you can’t be young and do that.” The repetition of that last line is telling: Much of life might be tedious, but it’s charged with moments of meaning if we’ve got eyes to see them.
McMurtry fits in the tradition of Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and other troubadours who chronicle their explorations of both outer and inner worlds. His music is mostly straightforward guitar rock, with a galloping momentum and a way of evoking big open vistas. His voice has a limited range, but he uses it to strong effect, punching home key phrases.
In “Ft. Walton Wakeup Call,” we get a narrator arguing with his partner in a wintery Florida resort town, griping about Wi-Fi and rental car aggravations, on hold with an airline, annoyed by the TV in the motel lobby, when his frustrations come to a head: “Damn near made the desk clerk cry / and there wasn’t any reason for that.”
That line gets at what I appreciate about McMurtry’s sensibility. In the rest of the song, the stakes are comically low. But in that brief exchange, the narrator sees the humanity in the clerk and owns up to his own failing. You get the sense he’s going to treat others better because of it.
(I also love how McMurtry’s Texas drawl turns “wasn’t” into “wudn’t”).
The stakes are considerably higher in “Operation Never Mind,” which turns on a powerful triplet:
No one knows ’cause no one sees
No one cares ’cause no one knows
No one knows ’cause no one sees it on TV
Those lines capture the jarring disconnect of living through our twenty years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well any art I know, perhaps outside of Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. McMurtry indicts the indifference of those of us who pay our taxes at home while young men and women die overseas. He also shows how keeping wars hidden is a strategy by those who start them: “We won’t let the cameras near the fightin’ / That way we won’t have another Vietnam.”
The anger in “Operation Never Mind” and the banal details in songs like “Ft. Walton Wakeup Call” work together, suggesting just how easy it is to lose track of what matters in the tedium of daily life. As the pandemic drags on and worry and weariness seem to capture more and more of the day, I appreciate art that pierces the fog more than ever.
One last thought. I grew up in a faith community singing praise songs about searching, seeking, and longing for Jesus. I love many of those songs and still sing them to my kids. And yet here’s McMurtry on “If It Don’t Bleed”:
I wouldn’t get down on my knees on a bet
I’m near enough to Jеsus as I ever wanna get
Seeking salvation isn’t part of my gеneral plan
I don’t know what to make of that, but I find it funny and honest and refreshing. Maybe it expresses a longing as honest as our devotional songs. Or maybe there’s nothing insightful here.
I think there’s something destabilizing in good art. It pierces through piety and predictability and indifference. In a time of COVID and political strife, “destabilizing” might be the last thing in the world to seek. But too much stability can be deadening, as McMurtry’s character sketches show. They offer hints of how to be more fully alive, even in dark times.