Like his dad Larry, singer-songwriter James McMurtry knows characters. But unlike his novelist father — who penned The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove, and wrote Brokeback Mountain's screenplay — the guys and gals who populate James' work don't even bother looking for a way out. They're already down for the count, thanks to an America that's passed them by. On McMurtry's latest CD, Just Us Kids, he tells the tales of folks who've been hit hard by Bush's non-recession. They smoke too much, they drink too much, and they get on with their lives the best they know how. And often, there's little hope outside the bars, trailers, and factories in which they spend the majority of their time. Best is "Cheney's Toy," a simmering heartland crawl that knocks the prez down to a mere plaything: "You're the man, show 'em what you're made of/You're no longer daddy's boy/You're the man that they're all afraid of/But you're only Cheney's toy." It's tough stuff and the centerpiece of McMurtry's best album, which gains more resonance onstage.