It's rare for me to devote an entire column to a single song—although I once did so for Joni Mitchell's "Amelia" —but in this case it's a song by a singer whose name is not very well-known and whose name I want to make known.
His name is James McMurtry, and that—his name—initially presented an obstacle to my appreciating his work. I've been intrigued by McMurtry ever since my girlfriend came back from a trip to the far reaches of inner America. She'd heard this song—and other great McMurtry cuts—while driving long stretches of West Texas and Oklahoma. When she played me McMurtry's masterpiece "Choctaw Bingo," I couldn't stop thinking about it.
A lot of this not-very-well-known Texas-based singer-songwriter's work is great (start off with Best of the Sugar Hill Years; his latest is Just Us Kids). And I'd call "Lights of Cheyenne" one of the most beautiful visionary romantic ballads I know. But "Choctaw Bingo," released in 2002, is genius. It's more than just genius; it's prophetic genius. New-national-anthem-level genius.
Seriously. It's time to retire ol' Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" and go with a song that more truly represents the America of today: post-crash, pre-apocalypse, meth- and money-addicted, heading down the highway to self-destruction.
To return to the "problem" of McMurtry's name. It's not surprising, of course, that McMurtry can write: He's the son of Larry McMurtry, the author of classics such as Lonesome Dove. (And his mother was an English professor, a complex burden we share.)
But being a devotee of truck-stop rock, I found myself wondering whether James McMurtry—the bard of what he calls "the North Texas-Southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry" country, the man who seems to capture its hard-bitten, sin-ridden nuances so faithfully—could really be the real thing. Yes, his father is Texas-born, it's true, but he also published often in the New York Review of Books, and I had a notion this would somehow disqualify his son from raw, unadulterated Texas-Oklahoma authenticity.
You can see, though, with just one twist of the DNA, how the son can bring the father's literary talent to the outlaw country/redneck rock genre; he writes songs with the kind of offhanded quick wit and painfully bitter, cut-to-the-bone romantic remorse with which geniuses like John Hiatt, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earl, Robert Earl Keen, and Rodney Crowell made their names. Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris sometimes hit that note of highway melancholy, too. *
Hangover wisdom, truck-stop soul, stolen-car drive tunes: It's hard to give the genre a name. It's not pure country, and it's not pure rock (though it totally rocks). Anyway, McMurtry's best songs stand up to the best of his cohort. He's a kind of cult- and critics' fave who hasn't yet broken out of the "Americana" box.
But he's got the talent for it. And he's a prophet, too. He was writing songs about subprime mortgages and meth-crazed good ol' boys back in 2002, when he released "Choctaw Bingo," the best of these. The song is my candidate for new American anthem, a national anthem for the crash, because it captures a culture where addiction to meth and addiction to money are indistinguishable in their frenzy and their ruination. Vice versa and vice worser. If you don't hear it the first time you hear "Choctaw Bingo," you've spent too much time on the coasts and not enough in the off-the-grid, flown-over locales.
How shall I describe "Choctaw Bingo"? It's about a family reunion in heavy meth country convened by mean old "Uncle Slayton," who's a kind of malignant Uncle Sam figure for the assembled family members.