Combine the sudden crunch of being tackled by a 330-pound lineman with the exquisite delight of running a feather boa down your chest, and you're ready to think about James McMurtry's new album. Electrons jump ecstatically through the speakers as the guitars crackle, the drums snap and shuffle, the bass doggedly follows a straightforward path and the organ lays a warm chordal blanket of comfort on top of everything. Saint Mary of the Woods crosses country music with rock, which we've heard a few million times but never like this. Neither the jamming boogie of the '70s nor the alt-country slipperiness of more recent vintage is the blueprint here. Instead, McMurtry pulls his rock influence from Lou Reed, circa his New York album, and the surprise is that nobody thought of it before.
McMurtry has storytelling in his bones. He's the son of novelist Larry McMurtry and the spiritual heir to the Texas-troubadour tradition embodied by Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Reed built his career vowing to bring literary themes into rock & roll; McMurtry merges his traditional tales of dysfunctional characters searching for their co-dependents with Reed's specific attention to tonal perfection. Whereas Reed's losers are city dwellers, McMurtry's live out in the middle of the country (though for McMurtry, the middle happens to be Texas). Despite his adherence to the Texas singer/songwriter form of basic blues and folk chord changes with simple melodic variations, McMurtry is concentrating harder on the sound of his records than do any of his peers and forebears, with the possible exception of Joe Ely. This record is the culmination of a career spent looking for a way to bring that city sound to the country.
McMurtry (most likely with assistance from sideman extraordinaire David Grissom) has managed to duplicate the electric discharge of Reed's tone, giving it a little twang and a bit of a syncopated jump. His band, which includes erstwhile Small Face Ian McLagen, sounds every bit as assertive and explosive. Turn up the volume, and let them dance all over your head. Of course, none of this would matter if the songs weren't any good, and at least two -- a brooding rendition of Dave Alvin's "Dry River" and the twisted Chuck Berry-and-Bo Diddley-head-to-Hazzard County masterpiece "Choctaw Bingo" -- are among the best things you'll hear this year. But even the lesser songs, the ones with clichéd drifters and not-quite-developed metaphors, benefit from the urgently seductive feel of the music. This record will knock you down and caress your ears, and you'll beg for more.