New releases from a couple of the best of the contemporary troubadours of the Texas singer/songwriter set, that being James McMurtry and Eliza Gilkyson, lead the Compact Capsules charge this week. They share the fact that each has a famous father with McMurtry being the son of the acclaimed author Larry McMurtry and Gilkyson the daughter of legendary composer and lyricist Terry Gilkyson. They also share a passion for telling it as they see it in their oft-times very pointed songs. Rounding things out is the new release from one of the old sages of the Texas singer/songwriter set, Billy Joe Shaver, whose latest release called The Real Deal exemplifies just that. Let’s get to it.
Compadre Records 65842
If you happened to catch the Bob Dylan film on PBS several weeks back, one of the many interviewees from the film talked about having something to say in your songs and/or music. Listen to the frivolity of the pop music that continues to dominate the commercial airwaves and it’s pretty obvious that ninety percent of the charting artists have very little to say. To find songs of substance nowadays, you need to head off the beaten track be it college, community, public, or even satellite radio. Over the course of what has been roughly a 12-year career, singer/songwriter James McMurtry has established himself as a fascinating storyteller as well as lyricist who is unafraid to speak his mind in song. Case in point being the composition “We Can’t Make It Here” from his brand new album called Childish Things. His second release for Houston-based Compadre Records, it follows 2004’s superb live retrospective recording Live in Aught-Three. An acute commentary on the bleak state of the union, McMurtry actually made “We Can’t Make It Here” available as a free, downloadable MP3 from his web site not long before the 2004 presidential election. A protest song of grand proportions on which McMurtry holds nothing back in expressing his disdain for what the current administration is doing to this country and which by the way, rocks pretty darn hard, the song was met with overwhelming response. Nearly eight minutes in length, it is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the 12-song Childish Things which is McMurtry’s first studio album of original songs in three years. When it comes to speaking his mind, the buck doesn’t stop with “We Can’t Make It Here”. The stark “Six Year Drought” strikes just as hard while “Memorial Day” is a wake-up call of sorts about how it has become yet another holiday for which the true meaning is slipping away. As heavy as those are, along comes tracks like “Pocatello” and the title track each of which are straightahead roots rockers readymade for cranking the volume. In keeping with that, as much as a McMurtry record is about the songs, it is also about the sound. A muscular three-piece combo despite the mere guitar-bass-drums composition, McMurtry’s rock-leaning roots sound is heavy on the riffs with a sturdy backbone. Handling the guitar chores himself, he continues to display an uncanny and economical knack for finding a groove in his music and working it to the max. Back to the songs, 10 of the dozen numbers making up Childish Things are new compositions while the two non-originals are covers of the traditional country standard “Ole Slew Foot” which gets a pretty rocked-out workover and features a duet with fellow Lone Star roots rocker Joe Ely and “The Old Part of Town” from the pen of Peter Case. All in all, Childish Things is yet another fine addition to the McMurtry catalogue. Recommended. (Compadre Records, The Great Jones Building, 708 Main Street, Suite 720, Houston, TX 77002, or www.compadrerecords.com or www.jamesmcmurtry.com)
James McMurtry performs at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA on Friday, October 28. Johnny D’s is located at 17 Holland Street in Davis Square. Call 617-776-2004 or check them out on the web at www.johnnyds.com.
Red House Records RHRCD-187
Following closely on the heals of her 2004 Grammy-nominated album Land of Milk and Honey comes the latest release from Eliza Gilkyson called Paradise Hotel. Her fourth album for Red House Records since signing with the label in 2000, it is a moving collection of songs from an artist who is truly hitting her stride as both songwriter and singer. In some respects it is not surprising considering her bloodlines. Gilkyson’s brother Tony, who makes an appearance on this latest record, was a principal component of the Los Angeles-based punk band X while her father Terry was an ultra-successful songwriter whose most noteworthy composition was the Disney classic “The Bare Necessities”. Over the last five years since signing with Red House, Eliza too, has made her mark. Paradise Hotel may be Gilkyson’s most realized recording to date. An eclectic collection featuring all original compositions with the exception of a wonderful cover of World Party’s “Is It Like Today”, the album begins simply enough with the delicate love song “Borderline” featuring the nimble guitar strokes of regular accompanist Mike Hardwick. From there it is into the ethereal title track before Gilkyson offers up arguably her most politically slanted song to date with “Man of God”. Like James McMurtry, she also questions the direction of this country. The blunt “Man of God” takes aim at the faith-based posturing by the current administration and its use of such tactics to achieve its goals. Other standouts include the straight-up country of “Calm Before the Storm” which features a duet with Shawn Colvin, the Mexican-flavored ballad titled “Bellarosa”, “Requiem” which takes its cue from the tsunami destruction of earlier this year, and the heavy duty “Jedidiah 1777” on which Gilkyson sings of an ancestral grandfather who fought in the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington. Highly recommended. (Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104, or www.redhouserecords.com or www.elizagilkyson.com)
Eliza Gilkyson opens for Richard Thompson at the Somerville Theater located at 56 Davis Square, Somerville, MA on Monday, October 24. Call 617-625-4088.
Billy Joe Shaver
The Real Deal
Compadre Records 66422
Think about if your wife, son and mother all died within a year. It’s exactly what happened just five years ago to Billy Joe Shaver. For many, such tragedy would be enough to check out for good. A highly spiritual man, the legendary singer/songwriter Shaver rebounded with constant performing which no doubt served as a catharsis in his recovery. Shaver’s songwriting credentials are impressive what with artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley to Waylon Jennings to the Allman Brothers covering his tunes. They are songs born of his own life experiences with his poetic way of putting those experiences into song making him the highly respected tunesmith that he has been for going on 25 years now. Shaver has also been an impressive recording artist in his own right and it is on those many solo albums that many of his classics have had their birth. The Real Deal is the name of Shaver’s latest longplayer. His first new studio album in three years, it features 16 original songs along with a bonus track cover of “Feliz Navidad” possessing the same grit and emotion that has defined his best work. A re-recording of a long-time favorite, “Live Forever”, leads off the record. The twist to this newly recorded version is that it features the duo Big & Rich in a supporting role on vocals. One of two tracks recorded in Nashville (the other being a duet with Nanci Griffith), no doubt the hope is that the appearance of that superstar duo will bring new fans into the Shaver camp. Speaking from a fan perspective, if that’s what it takes so be it as Billy Joe Shaver has always been worthy of a larger audience. The remaining 14 tracks were laid down in Shaver’s comfort zone, that being a studio just outside of Austin in the Texas hill country with some of his favorite local players providing the backing. The result is an honest, laid-back collection of country tunes that wear like an old pair jeans on the ears and soul.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at email@example.com.)