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JAMES MCMURTRY (Buy CDs by this artist)
Too Long in the Wasteland (Columbia) 1989
Candyland (Columbia) 1992
Where'd You Hide the Body (Columbia) 1995

John Mellencamp "discovered" James McMurtry; besides a backing band, both men have shared the nagging feeling that something's rotten in Peoria. McMurtry's lyrics read as riveting poetry, but they're that much more powerful when heard in the company of a modest hook and a heartland backbeat. Sung in a flat deadpan, the songs tell tales too fully formed and evocative to be called sketches — they're more like short story collections, blessed with the laconic concision of Raymond Carver.

Mellencamp produced Too Long in the Wasteland, using most of his band to back up the Texas-born singer/guitarist, who displays a Lou Reed-like sense of melody — minimal but catchy. In this wasteland, poor, alienated characters roam the four-lane highways, reform schools, gas stations and strip malls that form a gray backdrop for heartbreaking tales of disintegration. The beauty is in the details — the styrofoam cup of coffee, the sink full of dishes, the bullet holes in the mailbox. In typically specific terms, "Painting by Numbers" rails bitterly at the numbing conformity and mediocrity of Middle America; there's genuine poignancy and stinging bitterness in tunes like "Terry," "Outskirts" and the title track.

The Mellencamp mafia returns to back McMurtry on Candyland, which actually manages to improve on Wasteland's winning formula: the songs stand out more as hummable tunes. With Mellencamp sideman Michael Wanchic behind the board, it's a compelling assortment of small-town tragedies of lost love, lost youth and lost ideals that exposes unpleasant aspects of an America most people would prefer to deny. In "Where's Johnny," a local BMOC loses the thread and becomes a reclusive loser; "Safe Side" describes the ugly socio-economic line that divides San Antonio; the acerbic litany of "Good Life" assails empty comforts, materialism and complacency. In the catchy title tune, a pot-smoking ice cream man rolls through the streets of suburbia — mundane and yet deeply telling, it's indicative of the unsparing power of McMurtry's poetic eye.

On Where'd You Hide the Body, McMurtry profiles the same inexorable heartland heartbreak as before, but switches from third person to first, becoming characters instead of describing them. With producer Don Dixon on bass, keyboards and guitar, McMurtry branches out musically, adding horns, organ and wah-wah guitar for a more developed melodic sound. McMurtry appears to have mellowed, that animating bitterness abated, the still piercing observations dissolving into a softer focus. It doesn't always work to his advantage, but after the definitive triumph of Candyland, it's a necessary progression.

[Michael Azerrad]