catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 11 :: 2005.06.03 — 2005.06.16


Putting the journey to music

According to the lyric sheet, there are 36 lines in James McMurtry?s song ?Outskirts? from the album Too Long in the Wasteland. Only 11 of those lines give us details of the character?s story; the other 25 lines, by the far the majority of the lines, simply give us the setting. But it is through McMurtry?s description, giving the listener a sense of place, that we learn so much about the character?s life.

The character is returning to ?an old familiar town,? and while the 11 lines of story reveal a man returning to an old girlfriend (or wife) after a long absence finding someone else at the house, the other 25 lines give us all of the regret, sadness, awkwardness, and lack of hope. McMurtry doesn?t describe his main character going through these emotions, doesn?t tell us that he is nervous or crying or grim with despair. We don?t know what his face looks like, and we can?t see into his eyes.

What do we see is the setting for this man?s return to his woman. What we do see are the streetsslick as glass, ditches lined with stranded cars.? What we do see is the time of daya misty darkness comin? down.? We?re well aware of being confined in the car, nervous about this moment??starin? at the floor, filling up the ashtray.?

I?ve always loved this album by McMurtry for its way of telling stories. It should be no surprise that this son of novelist Larry McMurtry should be able to draw in the listener with short stories in song. However, in ?Outskirts,? it is striking how little of the story is directly told. The music comes together with the details of the town, the weather, and the car, and that, more than those few lines of direct narration, are what take me into the world that McMurtry has created.

Over and over again, McMurtry does this on the album. ?Terry? is sent to juvenile detention and struggles to find direction in life, but the details of his life come with a sense of place: a fight in a gravel parking lot, a 60-watt bare bulb in his room at school, a counselor shouting down the hall, his home town that doesn?t change.

?Shining Eyes? describes the problem of being away from your girlfriend or wife, traveling and trying to stay in touch. Again this song comes with vivid details of setting to paint the picture: ?telephone rings in an empty room,? ?pigeons on the sidewalk/can?t stay out of my way,? and ?between the highway lines/and the runway lights.?

I first got Too Long in the Wasteland when my music collection was young, made up of cassette tapes. I?d grab the tape, grab my fairly new driver?s license, throw the tape in the tape deck of my hand-me-down station wagon, and I?d go driving. McMurtry?s music was music for driving, traveling, heading out on small dark roads, imagining all of the stories that there are still to be told. It?s music that comes with a sense of place, a place that appears in my imagination just past the windshield as the car flies down a county road, creeps around the corner of a gravel lane, or slowly pushes through a snowy evening. It is music for headlights, taillights, streetlights obscured by rain, distant farmhouse windows of light and frost.

And in all of that traveling, imagining, finding new places, it might be easy to get lost. Traveling carries the danger of getting lost, and so lostness is no stranger in McMurtry?s collection. ?Poor Lost Soul? is addressed to someone who has wandered off to the big town, followed that traveling music all the way to the city that his family can?t understand, so they pray for his poor lost soul. Even faith in God seems connected to staying put, staying home, as if traveling leads to a rejection of faith. ?Your sister loves Jesus/she drives an Oldsmobile/says you ought to come visit/says what you need is a home-cooked meal/and she prays for your poor lost soul.? Leaving town, leaving home, choosing the big, unknown city over what your family has always known, and this may just mean that you?ve left God.

Yet, I don?t think McMurtry thinks that the person addressed in ?Poor Lost Soul? really lost faith. While leaving and walking away are themes in this collection of songs, all of the traveling, all of the details of setting are just a vehicle for talking about the heart. The heart is what leaves or stays; the heart is what believes in God or rejects God; the heart is what makes choices on the journey of life.

So then Terry will have trouble moving on from his past (?he won?t leave the walls behind/they?re gonna stay with him a good long time). In ?Shining Eyes,? the character realizes he?s been good too long (?it might have made no difference/had I never left at all/but I?m standing at the pay phone/and they?re sweeping out the hall). Finally, on the ?Outskirts,? the character realizes too late that he can?t just come back (?freezing rain/continued on through the morning/traveler?s advisory/I?ll give a little more warning next time?).

When I hear the guitars kick in on Too Long in the Wasteland, beautiful work on both acoustic and electric, when I hear the excellent accents from drummers Kenny Aronoff and Jerry Deupree, I?m ready to travel with an excellent soundtrack from James McMurtry. But as my mind courses through small towns and big cities, as my imagination comes back to the stories McMurtry?s created, in the end, it is my heart that travels.

I wrote this on a day I drove 50 miles into northeast Wisconsin, watching the pines and bits of snow somehow evoke the same emotions of McMurtry?s Texas stories, but it is my heart that travels?eager to explore, ready to approach something new, knowing the importance of connections, fearing getting lost, finding comfort in being surrounded by folks that know me. For all of the details of setting, McMurtry?s sense of place gives us a description of the heart.

This review originally appeared on December 17, 2003, at Benjamin Squires? music review site, Music Spectrum. Squires is Associate Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Manitowoc, WI.

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