Striding up from the back room in McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Pub – Houston, Texas, USA – is a tall, serene-looking man in cowboy boots and a black fedora. On the little stage in the bright red room, he shoulders his instrument and eyes the eager faces before him. “Well,” he muses, “we got the dinner crowd out of here. Who’s ready to hear some music?” Clearly, competing with a plate of fish and chips is not Tom Russell’s style. And once he begins playing, nobody would mistake his soul-deep strains for background music. Accompanied by veteran guitar picker Thad Beckman, Russell gives a truly memorable performance.
The history of Tom Russell, American troubadour, goes back a bit. His catalogue of recorded music dates to the late 1970s. Before that, he plied his musical trade during a stint in Nigeria, where he taught criminology, and later in the “Skid Row bars of Vancouver,” beginning in 1971. Much of this information is available on Russell’s website, but he also put a good deal of it into song on his 2009 album, Blood And Candle Smoke.
“I think the more you dig into the well, and the longer you write, you come back around to yourself.”
By Russell’s own admission, there is more of the artist’s “real life” on this new album. Songs like “East Of Woodstock, West Of Vietnam” and “Criminology” have the ring of autobiography to them, and he confirms that he dug deeper into his personal history to write them. Of “Finding You,” which he calls a “simple direct love song” written for his wife, he remarks, “I couldn’t have written this 20 years ago.”
Over the years, Russell has tried his hand at a wide variety of musical styles, and in the process become a leading figure of American folk and roots music. His body of work would take more than one article to trace properly, but even a quick survey demonstrates an impressive variety of inspirations.
Concert favorite “Gallo del Cielo” is a poignant ballad about a fighting rooster, played with a jubilant Mexican flavor reminiscent of Marty Robbins. “Stealing Electricity,” which Russell once performed on David Letterman’s show, features a lively pairing of guitar and accordion, and likens love to fatal electrocution. “Navajo Rug,” co-written with Canadian folk elder Ian Tyson, is a witty honky tonk love song which became a hit for Jerry Jeff Walker. “Don’t Look Down,” which may well be the best song of this decade, is a wistful waltz-time recollection of too many years spent on the road.
“You don’t become a songwriter. It’s in your blood and bones. You either walk away from it, or explore it. To me it was never a job that I started. It was the recognition of who I was.”
Every Tom Russell song has something to say about the human heart. In each voice he invokes there are universal echoes of love, doubt, weakness, fear, restlessness and faith. The figure of the wanderer – whether soldier, cowboy, nomad, pioneer, outcast or pilgrim – passes again and again through his work.
Russell himself has seen the world, and played music in much of it. This connection to humanity at large affords him a vast palette with which to color his songs. From the legacy of the great western ballads, to to the exotic nuance of Spanish and Mexican music, to the work of folk legends like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (one of his self-acknowledged heroes), Russell draws his water from many different wells.
“Everything goes back to the gypsies and Moors. Trust me.”
Perhaps the greatest manifestation of Russell’s wandering spirit is his 1999 album The Man From God Knows Where. Not simply a conventional folk record, it is an elaborate song cycle which follows several Irish and Norwegian clans, based on Russell’s own ancestry, through the tribulations of immigration, homestead farming, westward expansion and more. The themes of loneliness, heartbreak, faith, despair and love mingle in great, sometimes overwhelming, floods. The recurring lyrical motif of the album is the line “American primitive man… in an American primitive land.” The players in the piece are given life by Russell and a cast of other noteworthy performers – Dave Van Ronk, Dolores Keane, Sondre Bratland, Kari Bremnes, and Iris DeMent.
DeMent is a prominent country and folk artist in her own right, and has recorded numerous duets with Russell. Anyone interested in Tom Russell’s work ought to look her up as well. By a happy coincidence, Iris DeMent performed on the very same stage one week before Russell’s show. It was a profoundly moving solo performance which deserves special mention. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken DeMent treated a hushed audience to a generous selection of fan favorites, new songs, and classic country standards, all intoned in her unique, lovely, and staggeringly mournful voice.
Russell fondly recalls working with DeMent, who writes in a whimsical and melancholy style akin to his own. She has lent supporting vocals to several of his most stirring songs, including the wistful “Box Of Visions” and a particularly wrenching ballad called “Throwing Horseshoes At The Moon.” Russell observes that as singers, they “blended well together.”
“She has one of those voices which sound like it’s telling the honest truth. As opposed to all the country singers in the last twenty years who sound like they’re lying to you. Suburban white lies.”
Asked about his travels, Russell declines to pick a single favorite spot to perform. All around the world, it seems, he is glad to share his songs. And he has been just about everywhere. At every turn, the traces of a vagabond soul shine through.
Russell takes the stage with an easy manner, ready to cut loose and play hard. It is his second show of the evening, and he admits to feeling the “second set vibe” pretty strongly. His exuberance is not lost on the crowd, who respond warmly to both his caustic banter and his rousing musical performance. Ever a man of the people, Russell patiently considers each song request shouted from the crowd. He obliges with several, but does not hesitate to decline if he’s not up for a particular song. After all, if he played as long as this crowd wanted him to, he would be late for tomorrow night’s El Paso show, clear across the state. When one insistent fan pleads for a particularly dark murder ballad – “The Sky Above, The Mud Below” – he goes so far as to observe, “That’s a little twisted for this time of night, isn’t it?” But when the laughter dies down, he plays the song anyway. Trading verses with the audience and guitar licks with able accomplice Thad Beckman, Russell gives the kind of show one would expect from a veteran of the road.
“I love Reno, Belfast, Oslo, New York, Atlanta, Edmonton…anywhere we can put up the tent.”
Russell keeps himself busy. He has published several books, and recently began penning film scores. He mentions a brand new album in the works, as well as collaborations with alt-country group Calexico and Augie Meyers of Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados. There is also talk of adapting The Man From God Knows Where into a Norwegian stage production. In any case, Russell is not the type to stay in one place very long at a time.
When offstage, he resides in El Paso with his wife Nadine, where, as he puts it, “we read, write and paint. Occasionally we open a bottle of wine.” Folk art with a Mexican flair is one of his big pastimes, and he has even painted the cover art of several of his albums. Along with the musical merchandise available at his concert, he is now selling selected pieces from a new series of “Aztec Chickens.” With all the irons he has in the fire, Russell clearly believes in taking time out to live the good life.
When questioned on the subject, Russell confirms his fascination with life on the border, which should be plain to those who listen to his music. Having been around the globe and back, he admits that the place he truly calls home is “the frontier,” and El Paso certainly qualifies.
“I feel grounded here on the border. I can see Juarez over there across the bloody river. It’s the frontlines, and I love the history, the art and the music. This is home.”
Tom Russell and Thad Beckman will be featured performers in the 2011 Roots On The Rails project, a unique series of special performances by Jimmy Webb, Jesse Winchester, Russell and Beckman on an overland train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Limited availability! For more details and booking visit www.RootsOnTheRails.com.
For more on Tom Russell’s projects, past and present, visit www.TomRussell.com.
Special Thanks to McGonigel’s Mucky Duck (Houston, TX) and to Nadine Russell for her cordial communication.
To Tom, I return the salute – “Adios and thanks!”