James McMurtry’s seventh studio release would prove to be his best. As the record’s title track reveals, the album evokes the biblically inspired notion that there comes a time when we all must put away childish things, and as the remainder of the 12 tracks reveal, that time is now. To bring the message home, the wryly nostalgic title track is followed by what many listeners consider to be the album’s centerpiece, the quietly angry “We Can’t Make It Here.” In just seven minutes and five seconds, McMurtry offers an alternative state-of-the-union address that, according to writer Stephen King, “may be the best American protest song since [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Masters of War.’” Stark and unsentimental, the epic-like song’s mantra, “We can’t make it here anymore,” has a double meaning, referring both to the disappearance of manufacturing and other jobs, as well as the difficulty many face in simply making ends meet.
The son of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, James McMurtry said he’d “always been a little put off by activists.” Since his 1989 debut (spurred on by rocker John Mellencamp), he’d been more about simply describing characters and situations he observed around him. But with Childish Things, his observations began to take on a more overtly political pall. The 10-verse “We Can’t Make It Here” included the stanza: “Will work for food will die for oil / Will kill for power and to us the spoils / The billionaires get to pay less tax / The working poor get to fall through the cracks.”
Childish Things was awarded the 2006 Americana Music Association Album of the Year Award, while “We Can’t Make It Here” was named the best song of the 2000s decade by music critic Robert Christgau. And the album actually made a profit. “The only record [of my seven studio efforts] to make money was Childish Things, which came out just before Napster and Spotify gutted the industry,” McMurtry later said. “I’m grateful people still seem to be responding to my music. Things turned a corner with Childish Things. It’s tough out there these days.”
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