James McMurtry – Lights of Cheyenne

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James McMurtry
James McMurtry

Here without his backing band The Heartless Bastards, ‘Lights of Cheyenne’ is the sort of wail that rings truest with a single instrument in accompaniment. It’s closer to silence, and the ‘darkness on the edge of town.’

I quote the lyrics in their entirety because in my experience McMurtry is as much a poet as musician. His body of work reflects a singular way with words of reflection, of humor black and white, of human experience, of the land.

Look off down the highway at the glittering lights
Like windshield glass on the shoulder tonight
As the diesels come grinding on up from the plains
All bunched up like pearls on a string

And I guess time don’t mean nothin’, not nothin’ at all
And out on the horizon the broken stars fall
Old broken stars they fall down on the land
And get mixed together with the lights of Cheyenne

Well I’ve been up all night and I’m down on my back
Workin’ the counter to take up the slack
`Cause the money tree’s light and the whiskey stream’s low
You ain’t worked a week since July

You say the gravel pit’s hiring after the first
But you don’t have the nature for that kind of work
You might get hired on but you won’t make a hand
And I’ll still be here lookin’ at the lights of Cheyenne

You stand in the sky with your feet on the ground
Never suspectin’ a thing
But if the sky were to move you might never be found
Never be heard from again

We go on good behavior when our youngest comes home
She comes up from Boulder but she never stays long
And that oldest still fights me like she was 18
Stopped in for a 6-pack awhile ago

And she’s got a cowboy problem, and this last one’s a sight
All dressed up like Gunsmoke for Saturday night
And they were off to the bars for lack of a plan
Racing the stars to the lights of Cheyenne

And you’ve kept all that meanness inside you so long
You’d fight with a fence post if it looked at you wrong
Well a post won’t hit back, and it won’t call the law
I look at your right, or I don’t look at all

Now take a crumpled up soft pack and give it a shake
Out by the dumpster on a cigarette break
With one eye swelled up from the back of your hand
And the other eye fixed on the lights of Cheyenne

You stand in the sky with your feet on the ground
Never suspectin’ a thing
But if the sky were to move you might never be found
Never be heard from again

Now there’s antelope grazing in range of my gun
Come opening weekend you won’t see a one
They’ll vanish like ghosts `cause somehow they know
But now they’re up to the fence in the early dawn

And it’s warming up nicely for this time of year
The creeks are still frozen but the roads are all clear
And I don’t have it in me to make one more stand
Though I never much cared for the lights of Cheyenne

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