Saint Mary Of The Woods
Sugar Hill Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/28/2002
James McMurtry is one of those artists I've always heard about, but never heard. People would rave about him, I'd file the name in the back of my mind, and it'd disappear under a pile of 1970s Chicago Cubs lineups, role-playing game trivia, and 1980s music geekery. However, it stuck enough that when his new CD, Saint Mary Of The Woods, showed up in my mailbox, I opened it up and took a listen.
Wow. What in the hell have I been waiting for?
Saint Mary Of The Woods is one of the greatest CDs I've heard this year. McMurtry is a musical photographer; he takes snapshots of moments and people and drags them out into the unblinking light. His lyrics are bitter, biting, and brilliant ("Grand Daddy's good name//Fits like a shackle and a chain//And all them others, long dead//Still a-hangin' around my head//Hard workin' cattle men//There's not a one left of them//There's only me, there's only mine//I guess we're all the other kind…"). The musicianship on Saint Mary is excellent, and McMurtry's a pretty fair guitar player as well.
But it's the songs that really blow you away. Unrelenting photographs of despair and hope ("Dry River"), past sins ("Valley Road"), lost love ("Broken Bed"), and broken homes ("Gone To The Y") barrel into you like runaway freight trains, framed by the precise dispassion of McMurtry's vocals. This is brilliance, plain and simple.
Special note has to be given to two songs: "Out Here In The Middle", McMurtry's wickedly funny tribute to life for those of us here in Middle America, and "Choctaw Bingo", an eight-minute opus about one of the world's most dysfunctionally hilarious family reunions. The gem of the entire set, though, is the title track, "Saint Mary Of The Woods"; rarely, if ever, does a songwriter entrap a single moment of despair and alienation in a net of words like this.
Saint Mary Of The Woods is one of the best CDs of the year. Don't miss it.