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James McMurtry's 'Just Us Kids' Strives to Evoke Listeners' Feelings

Author Stephen King describes James McMurtry as "the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation." Music critics seem to agree, calling his 2005 CD "Childish Things" everything from "a career album," to "the years best." His peers seem to agree, honoring "Childish Things" with three wins at the 2006 Americana Music Awards. Now comes "Just Us Kids," and VOA's Katherine Cole reports James McMurtry's ninth solo CD is every bit as powerful as his eighth.

With Just Us Kids, James McMurtry does what every artist strives to do; make you feel. It doesn't matter if the songs make you feel uncomfortable, angry or empowered. All that matters is that you feel something. While many people will like this album full of story songs, it is also bound to make others very angry, because unlike some entertainers, James isn't afraid to speak out and say exactly what he feels and thinks.

For example, James has made it no secret that he's against the war in Iraq, and is also angry about things closer to home. While many other performers may be feeling the same way, few are brave enough to put out songs that say just that. In a recent interview at the South by Southwest Music Conference, James McMurtry said writing about what he believes in has nothing to with being brave; it's just something that needs to be done.

McMurtry: "I mean, I only got into it because I couldn't avoid it. As a resident of the state of Texas that usually votes Democratic, my vote doesn't seem to mean much anymore. So the only power I had was a record deal. I put 'We Can't Make It Here Anymore' out as a free download right before the 2004 election, and it got more attention than anything I'd done on a CD in the last 10 years. I didn't know that would happen. I just got lucky with that."

Cole: "I guess that's what you have to write about these days, right?"

McMurtry: "You have to write about it some. This is not entirely a political album, I think there are about four political songs on it out of 13. But yes, it has to be done. You have to get your opinion across anyway you can. It might not matter. But I do think that recording artists do have a responsibility. And we're a little too scared these days. We're trying to be loved. And I think our job is really to be remembered, not loved, because not everyone is going to love you, no matter what you do. So make a point. Take a stand on whatever it is."

As James McMurtry said, not all the songs on Just Us Kids are political. But they are all honest … and real. You may feel the same way or know some of the people James is singing about in his songs; like "Ruby and Carlos," who's love is not standing the test of time.

James McMurtry recorded this CD with his road band performing on all the tracks. There are a few special guests, too.

McMurtry: "Ian McLagen came in and played all the keyboards, the [Hammond] B-3 [organ] and piano. And we've got an excellent trumpet player on a few songs, a fellow named Ephraim Owens."

Cole: "And you produced this one?"

McMurtry: "Yes. I've actually produced my last four records because nobody else much wanted to do it. I'm getting tired of it."

Cole: "In a perfect world, who might you like to work with?"

McMurtry: "I have not yet worked with Bobby Field. R.S. Field, the guy who did all those Sonny Landreth records and he did a couple of Webb Wilder records. Yeah, I'd like to work with him. There are a lot of people who really know how to do it. I've gotten pretty good at it, but I think I need to go back to producer school, and let someone else do the next one."

Cole: "So what's next for you? Are you going to be touring this a lot?"

McMurtry: "Yes, we'll be out most of the mid-year. And then turn around again. Hopefully we can step up. We're at a very uncomfortable point. We're starting to fill clubs where we used to not be able to draw flies [attract few patrons]. But we're still in clubs, which means I can't get away from people. I'm not really a 'people person.' And so I get trapped in these clubs, and then I destroy the illusion that I'm a nice guy … which can be detrimental to a career!"

James McMurtry's Just Us Kids" maintains the high standards fans have come to expect from the singer-songwriter. The music is filled with loud guitars, but leaves the spotlight on his words. That is perfect, as James McMurtry writes songs filled with characters so real that you're sure they're going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes.