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Music Review - `Matamoros` by James Kahn (jh)

James KahnMatamoros  (click on image to watch video)

29 January 2020 


You may be familiar with James Kahn without even knowing it. Whether or not you’ve read one of his many novels, you’ll certainly recognize these TV shows for which he’s written – Melrose Place, Star Trek: Voyager and perhaps these other titles where he’s credited as the novelizer – Return of the Jedi, Poltergeist, The Goonies.  In recent years he’s also turned toward music and his latest project Matamoros, is both a novel and a CD of the same name. This is a concept album based on a series of adventures taking place between Brownsville, TX and Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande. The subtitle of the CD, its jacket richly adorned with beautiful paintings, a map on the back cover and detailed booklet with lyrics, is a summation of these tales – “Songs of the Civil War, the Wild West, the Shanty Seas, and the Haunted Heart.”

Few reference points come to mind. Yes, Dylan had a lengthy song called “Brownsville Girl” but the preeminent comparison is the similarly literate Tom Russell who has practically written novelettes in his albums like Rose of Roscrea and The Man From God Knows Where. Both Kahn and Russell are experts on the wild west, haunted hearts, and Irish fare.  Both are, at heart, folk singers. So, if you love these kinds of literate, narrative tales Kahn is a must-listen.

Matamoros has 14 songs, runs for over an hour, and has a couple that run to six or seven minutes. Each is about one of the characters in the novel and the musical accompaniment tries to mirror the idiom of the character’s background. For example, there’s an Irish folk song for the Irish immigrant (which Kahn does a great job of making sound authentically Irish). He sings the sea shanty like a crusty old mate, takes to Cuban son for the Cuban revolutionary, and finds southern music, be it a waltz, bluegrass, or blues for the southern characters.

Obviously, he has a rich trove to draw from. The story takes place in 1862 when the Union Navy had blockaded all Southern ports. Matamoros, Mexico became a “back door of the Confederacy,” located just across the river from Brownsville, the furthest west U.S. port on the Gulf. At the same time, Mexico was under siege from Napoleon II of France. Thus, the area became a gathering place for a host of shady, desperate types from Northern and Southern spies, to runaway slaves, Confederate deserters, corrupt cotton brokers, Mexican resistance fighters, Texas Rangers, French Foreign Legionnaires, British marines, smugglers, bar girls, diplomats, bandits, and just about any type of rogue.

Each of these characters is intent on their own survival, and Kahn masterfully captures the drama and emotional turbulence both in his words and reflective music. Ultimately most of it rings of desperation, despair, and bleak outlooks but the music is rendered sparingly, even beautifully often, almost masking the darkness that lies underneath. The first two songs, the title track and “Scully’s Redemption” provide the foundation for the storyline that’s worth following but also easy to lose if one just simply gets caught up in a specific tune or two. Certainly “Solomon’s Shanty,” “The Mighty Fine Texas Rangers,” “Mildred’s Waltz,” “Printer’s Devil” and the mournful “Rio Allie” and “So Long, The River” stand out. It’s a lot to consume but well worth the effort.  Chances are that you’ll be seeking out more form his catalog, be they music or novels. 

Jim Hynes



Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here




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