About a month ago, I put out an APB for any songwriter willing to write a little piece about their favorite album and Ben Fisher beckoned to the call. Now, y’all know I love Ben Fisher. He’s the hardest-busking busker in Seattle and I feel privileged that he took the time to write a guest post for CFM. So, without further interruption, here is James McMurtry’s Childish Things from Ben Fisher’s point of view…
If, during your formative years your dad is a novelist, your mom is an English professor, and Charles Bukowski stays at your house when he come through town, you’re likely going to do one of two things. You’re either going to rebel and decide you’ve had enough of the English language and become a gym teacher or insurance salesman, or you’re going to embrace your literary upbringing and do something with it. Luckily for me and many of his other fans, James McMurtry decided to be a songwriter.
My favorite album of his is 2005’s “Childish Things,” which I found one day in my dad’s car. It features some of his best songwriting and storytelling and is a wonderful collection of songs about small town America, about family gatherings and the exodus that occurs afterwards, and about the holidays we celebrate as a nation.
The man is a genius with a pen and one of my friends calls his music the “pinnacle of intelligentsia-rock.” For example, he’s got the uncanny ability to give you a perfect picture of a person in just a sentence. Take the title track of “Childish Things”; the first line is “Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone in case she needed a quote while she talked to someone”.
Clara probably wears floral print dresses, definitely spends her Sunday mornings in church and is more than likely a little judgmental. McMurtry’s ability to give so much of a backstory with one lyric is something other songwriters would kill for. He could stop there, fill the rest of the song with mediocre lines and I’d still consider it a success, but he continues to showcase his talent in the song’s refrain, which expands on Aunt Clara. “She says I’ll grow up big if I eat all my roast, I’ll still believe in heaven but I won’t believe in ghosts anymore.” Throughout the song he traces images of his childhood (“visions of freeze tag dance in my head”), and by the time he’s grown, he sings “I’m 47 years old now and man I don’t care. All I want now is a comfortable chair, and to sell all my stock and live on the coast. I don’t believe in heaven but I still believe in ghosts.” It’s a beautiful song with a literary progression that recalls his father’s profession.
Also on the album is McMurtry’s biggest hit and what I consider to be the finest protest song written in the 21st century, “We Can’t Make It Here.” Each line punches you in the gut harder than the last, and makes you wonder how on earth this song about social inequality is even more relevant today than it was when it was written 6 years ago.
When McMurtry comes to town, he plays the Tractor Tavern, where up and coming local folk singers play gigs as well, and inexplicably, he doesn’t fill it. He rides in a van from town to town, hauling his gear into rooms that will become half full at best that night. He takes pictures and fishes along the way. It would be a horribly depressing existence if his music wasn’t so damn good. And because it is, I think it’s a noble undertaking. His mildly monotone voice may put some people off, but if given the chance, go see this man live. He’ll probably play a few tracks off his 2005 release that I’ve listened to countless times. I think you’ll enjoy them.
James McMurtry performing “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” on the web TV show “Corporate Country Sucks”