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American Master Series James McMurtry: Best of the Sugar Hill Years

CD Review: James McMurtry

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The Deal: Acerbic Americana

The Good: James McMurtry's dad Larry gave us Lonesome Dove, the '86 Pulitzer-winning novel that inspired a mini-series starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones. His singer/songwriter son's historical vision is much harsher, with no tough as nails characters with hearts of gold as played by Robert Duvall. McMurtry junior's characters are more of the Jones persuasion -- hard-boiled cynics getting by as best they can, like the protagonist in "Sixty Acres." The meek may inherit, but they don't have to like it. Grandma died and left a good-sized spread, but somebody else in the family got the good stuff I should have had, the McMurtry's ungrateful inheritor whines. "Don't look at me funny like it's something I shouldna said/ just cause the old bird's dead." McMurtry's work mates the near psychotic enthusiasm of Talking Heads-era David Byrne with the acerbic wit of John Prine and the snarl of Bob Dylan.

The Bad: Sugar Hill only had McMurtry for three albums, '97's It Had to Happen, winner of the Americana Indie Award, '98's Walk Between the Raindrops, and '02's St. Mary of the Woods. But there's enough here to whet newcomers' appetite and satisfy the stalwarts 'til the next one comes out.

The Verdict: This stuff gets to you if taken all at once. It's like being pistol whipped -- it feels so good when it stops. Do not take right before bedtime -- agitation may ensue.

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