Skyline Staff Writer - 1990

Singer/songwriter James McCandless' second album, debuting this weekend, brings politics to the neighborhood level.

His first album, "Faultline," released in 1984, was strongly political. "It was about the things we fear," McCandless says, "things like nuclear power, the imperial presidency, even going bald. But that political slant is conspicuously absent from this album, 'We Had a Big Back Yard.' "

McCandless suggests the shift reflects his own growth in the past five years. "I realized I could not stop nuclear power or the imperial presidency, but I could do something for my own family.

"Where 'Faultline' was black and white, 'Backyard' is in color. Where 'Faultline' dealt with fear, this one addresses security. This is for friends and family. You can't save the world until you save your own family. It's about cleaning up your own back yard," he says.

Many of McCandless' pieces in "We Had a Big Back Yard" hit home on a far more personal level. "Rosalinda" was inspired by a student of his who unexpectedly died a few weeks later. His lyrics were eerily prophetic: "Rosalinda, you will sail a way someday/out of Belmont Harbor, out of Belmont Bay."

"One Child Saved," written after a child's death, grew out of a phrase he heard. McCandless was driving home from Iowa when he heard a story on the radio about two children who had fallen through the ice into the Des Plaines River. "One child was lost to the river and one child was saved," McCandless heard the newscaster say.

The warmth and whimsy of "Black Silk Hat" grew from a phone call from a friend excited about his latest purchase, a black silk hat. '''It's Shakespearean!" his . friend had said.

McCandless concedes that he has always been "out of sync" with the rest of his generation. When his fellow baby boomers were seeking business degrees and corporate perks, McCandless in 1982 gave up his career as an electrician to devote all his time to his music.

"Music just became more and more important to me," he says. "And I was lucky enough to have a wife to support that decision."

During the next seven years, McCandless taught guitar lessons to children at the Old Town School of Folk

The song on this new album that is making the biggest stir, McCandless says, is "Neighborhood Boy," a-song about "an Irish Catholic from the West Side who raised hell, went to Vietnam, returned home to become an iron worker, one who 'smokes Lucky Strikes ... rolls them in the arm of his V -neck T-shirt. '"

But he's no ordinary construction worker. This fellow "reads John Steinbeck and takes care of his mother .and sister," McCandless says. "He's not the perfect stereotype of the construction worker. It's a portrait that changes because we can't put people in pigeonholes." :

The songs reveal McCandless' love of ordinary people, as well as his love for life. In "This Must Be Paradise" he writes, "I never had it so good. Well, I hope that heaven is half this good."

Who knows? Maybe it's just one big back yard.