James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards

James McMurtry's dispatches from the world where the Wal-Marts meet the meth labs have never gone down easy. He's a hell of a writer, but he sings the way John Ashcroft probably hides the salami, which is to say he grits his teeth and gets it out, and afterward it's not his problem if your rocks ain't off. But here, finally, after six solo efforts as alternately inspired and tepid as his daddy's Lonesome Dove follow-ups, he's on it for real. McMurtry matches the best of his hardscrabble story-songs with energetic rock riffs and even comes close to a shout here and there, especially on "Choctaw Bingo," a hilarious rundown of every sort of flatland bastard set to Chuck Berry's nastiest chug. The mellow stuff, with its detailed understanding of life out in the middle, is even better. This is not only the hardest-rocking short-story collection we're going to get until what's left of Flannery O'Connor claws for her Remington, but also the driving-across-Texas record to beat for aught-four.

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