This is what the best songwriters do: “Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone in case she needed a quote while she talked to someone/ In my memory she smiles while the blessing is said and visions of freeze tag dance in my head.” That’s how James McMurtry (who’s playing at Raleigh’s Pour House on Nov. 3) starts the song “Childish Things,” the title track from his latest album.
I instantly think of my Grandpa Bill saying grace over a late Sunday afternoon meal when I was 9 or 10, a Boots Randolph record playing in the background. (If not freeze tag, I was no doubt thinking of some outdoor activity that would allow me to escape the stuffiness and that aging hard-candy smell that seemed to define grandparents’ houses when I was young.) Jaunty Nashvillepolitan saxophone is not your standard musical backdrop for offering thanks at the dinner table, but someone forgot to turn off the record player and Grandpa Bill makes it work. He was the gentlest, kindest man I’ve ever met, but also an unapologetic fan of the television show Wild, Wild West.
“That James West can sure take care of himself,” he’d offer several times per episode after witnessing Robert Conrad deck a baddie. He was the second husband of my dad’s mom; I never met my dad’s father, a school custodian, a tail gunner in World War II, and by all accounts a quiet man, who was taken young by a heart ailment. I remember Grandpa Bill saying to my grandma one December after she’d been released from the hospital, “I don’t need anything for Christmas other than having you back home.” “Good,” replied Grandma with a gleam in her eye, “because I wasn’t planning to get you anything.”
She was a bit of a pistol and, at close to 5-foot-10, a tall woman for her time. She came by that height honestly. Her father was a relative giant of a fella at 6-foot-5 whose hands were so big, my late dad was fond of saying, that he could hold a quart of huckleberries in one. My dad would also tell of riding on his grandpa’s shoulders for the four-mile walk into town and then getting the same ride back home even though the strapping guy’s arms were full of grocery bags. Did I mention that the summer he was 14 my dad painted the wooden rollercoaster at a local amusement park?
Man, that was quite a trip. In a couple lines, McMurtry steered me back three decades, and then back three decades more. He encouraged me to visit dear ones now gone–in my memory, they all smile–even some that I never got to know. That’s what the best songwriters do.