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July 21, 2004

Theme Song for the New Urbanism

Dear Vanessa --

I've been enjoying the heck out of James McMurtry's tasty and rockin' alt-country CD Too Long in the Wasteland. His music works for me in a way many people say Springsteen's works for them. McMurtry's tone --cussed, sardonic, and bitter, if also careworn and companionable -- brings his stuff alive in a way that really delights me, while Springsteen's earnestness and myth-making almost always make me roll my eyes like a bored, disbelieving teenager. McMurtry's got the kind of sly deadpan you might associate with a bearded trucker; a hyperarticulate, steely mind; and a surprising capacity for the tender and the mournful. I find the combo a treat.

I can't resist the pleasure of typing out some of the lyrics to his song "I'm Not From Here." Imagine them sung by a rough-edged, still-waters-run-deep kind of guy; imagine a loose-limbed and fleet-footed band playing flyin'-down-the-highway music.

I'm not from here
I just live here
Grew up somewhere far away
Came here thinking I'd never stay long
I'd be going back soon someday

It's been a few years
Since I got here
Seen 'em come and I've seen 'em go
Crowds assemble, they hang out awhile
Then they melt away like an early snow

Onto some bright future somewhere
Down the road to points unknown
Sending postcards when they get there
Wherever it is they think they're goin'

I'm not from here
I just live here
Can't see that it matters much
I read the papers and I watch the nightly news
Who's to say I'm out of touch?

Nobody's from here
Most of us just live here
Locals long since moved away
Sold their played-out farms for parking lots
Went off looking for a better way

Onto some bright future somewhere
Better times on down the road
Wonder if they ever got there
Wherever it was they thought they'd go

Hit my home town
A couple years back
Hard to say just how it felt
But it looked like so many towns I mighta been through
On my way to somewhere else

I'm not from here
But people tell me
It's not like it used to be
They say I shoulda been here
Back about ten years
Before it got ruined by folks like me

What a fab, jaunty-depressive evocation of the just-passing-through, ashtray-ish Nowheresville we've transformed so much of America into, and of the lost-but-in-a-hurry deadend that American adulthood so often turns out to be. Good lord, the bleary and clueless things we choose to do with our freedom and our prosperity. Come to think of it, I wonder if McMurtry has read James Kunstler's wonderful New Urban-ish jeremiads The Geography of Nowhere (buyable here) and Home From Nowhere (buyable here).

McMurtry's terrific disk can be bought here. Here's McMurtry's website. Here's a good profile of McMurtry by Roy Kasten.



posted by Michael at July 21, 2004


Oh my, he sounds like someone I need to check out, almost Willie Nelsonish in lyrics. Thanks!

Posted by: susan on July 21, 2004 9:31 PM

There's a part of me that sympathizes with McMurtry's complaint but there's another part of me that's aware that this complaint has been going on ever since the 1940's? when the first waves of rural southerners started leaving "the land" for northern factory work. It's so old, so tired, so dreary.
And anyway, how about learning to appreciate the amenities of all these nowhere places.
With nowheresville everywhere have come megastores and megasupermarkets and Starbucks (or its local equivalent) and Barnes & Noble or Borders and..............

Posted by: ricpic on July 22, 2004 8:10 AM

There is a Russian saying, translated roughly as "you can't run away from yourself"...

Posted by: Tatyana on July 22, 2004 8:57 AM

As Jerry Jeff Walker says, depending on the specific mood that hits you, you need to listen to classical music..or jazz...or blues...or country, and there's that odd time when sarcasm & sadness clobbers you and only James McMurtry will do. Have you had a chance to listen to his 1997 release "It Had to Happen"?. From "For All I Know",
"...what went up there, I never did know
what went up there..
course you had that boyfriend
with the Chevrolet
he never met Will Rogers
I'd be willing to say
yeah it's safe to say
he never met Will Rogers..."

The Bottle Rockets, whose lyrics are not as clever, are also a group in that sarcastic/sad pigeonhole of countrified rock.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 22, 2004 8:59 AM

"...the heck"? :)

Posted by: David Sucher on July 22, 2004 10:06 AM

It's funny how much James tours everywhere but his home state. I think he's only been to DFW once in the last 2 years. He's a definite Top Dog songwriter. If Levelland don't give you goosebumps, nothing will.

Chcek out Charlie Robison for some more of this -- he mixes in some (dang well done) honky-tonking, but Indianola is another great song about the family land. It's available for a buck at MusicMatch downloads.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 22, 2004 11:52 AM

Scott Chaffin: "It's funny how much James tours everywhere but his home state."

If I were a snarky b*****d, I'd probably say something like, "Any excuse to leave Texas is a good excuse." If I were trying for the faux-disinterested, backhanded slap at Texas, I'd make the comment elliptically and with vaguely plausible deniability. If I were just a pedant, I'd probably make strange meta-comments about the form of hypothetical insults.

But of course I'm none of those things.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 22, 2004 12:41 PM


C'mon fessup, you're a little bit of all those things. :)

Posted by: ricpic on July 22, 2004 2:17 PM

That might have had a visible point, if McMurtry didn't choose to live in Austin.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 22, 2004 9:15 PM

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