Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tom Russell - An Ancient Trade, and an Important One

Tom Russell takes songwriting very seriously. He’s been at the craft for better than 20 years, and has 25 albums/CD’s to show for it. His most recent effort, Wounded Heart of America, released late last year, features a bevy of covers of his songs by an impressive array of performers. Contributors include the late Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, and Dave Van Ronk, as well as Joe Ely, Ian Tyson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nancy Griffith and Iris DeMent, among others. Pretty hefty friends.

Russell finds the collection has provided him with some great listening.

“Johnny Cash did a real interesting version of "Veteran's Day." It sounded like it came off his first record, The Hot and Blue Guitars of Johnny Cash, on Sun. An honor of course. A deep honor.”

“My favorite cover might be Laurie Lewis doing "Manzanar," because she nailed it with passion.” Manzanar is the interment camp that housed Japanese-Americans, who were rounded up early in World War II.

Passion is something that Russell believes is a very important ingredient in good songwriting. Passion, and something a little harder to define.

“Songs are pure magic... the good ones. They take us out of real time into a place where nothing moves or ages. Painting can do the same thing. There are not that many creative writers that can achieve that. Nor poets. It has to do with "duende" and ancient tricks of the muse.”

To judge by his output, Russell is a master of those ancient tricks. His deep commitment to his craft leaves him with a fairly high set of standards. While confessing he doesn’t have the opportunity to follow much of the newer music, he also isn’t impressed with what he hears happening ‘out there’.

“I don’t hear much these days. I'm usually affronted by people's lies in song. I listen to Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and old Fred Neil records. I’m an old crank.”

Crank or not, Russell, who is also a published author, tends to write songs that have as their geographic locus the West. He is also a terrific storyteller. Why the Western setting?

“The West is where I come from. There's a different language out here. Something to do with the desert and the sky and the nearness to Mexico. I'm never that comfortable in the East - except for New York. I lived there for fifteen years. Bobby Neuwirth and I wrote a song about New York City called "The Biggest Bordertown in the World." Sort of a Western way of looking at the East.”

While he was pursuing a career in music, he also managed to acquire a degree in Criminal Justice. Like so many of his experiences, nothing was wasted.

“I had intended to teach or do something with a street level agency, but I hated academics and University people, so I went back to the guitar. The crime stuff now seeps into the songs... the guitar is a better weapon than a University degree. Trust me.”

Tom Russell has cut his own path in the music business. Although his songs turn up often on CD’s by other artists, he hasn’t aggressively shopped them.

“The songs seem to find their own way cause I've never really "pimped" them in Nashville or places like that.”

He also believes it is important to have a presence on the Internet.

“Downloading became necessary because most young writers can't write enough great songs to fill an album. So one song makes sense. The Internet is an interesting forum - it's bottomless if you don't abuse it. To me, it's just another carnival stage. It's another way of throwing some wine toward the thirsty.”

Something of a renaissance man, Russell has published both fiction and non-fiction, as well as writing and performing music. Recently, he has taken up painting; his current recent release features original artwork. Russell uses southwestern motifs and colors to create striking images. Still, when asked which medium he prefers, there is no hesitation.

“Song and performance. I'm working on painting.”

Russell has no intention of slowing down.

“Hemingway says you can't retire if you're a writer. It's like backing up into the grave. I'll never get sick of the minstrel trade and I don't think Dylan or Merle Haggard will either. It's only the worthless that give up. And the whiners...and a lot of people are whining these days on the fair grounds of music. I'm very happy to be able to travel and sing. It's an ancient trade and an important one.”


If you happen to be in Eastern Massachusetts on August 21, you can catch Russell at a wonderful venue, the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Newburyport, MA. You can contact them here

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CD Review: Tom Russell, Wounded Heart of America

Wounded Heart of America
Tom Russell
Hightone Records

A good song touches the heart of a listener, makes them think. Sometimes it makes them cry. A great song touches the heart of the person performing it; it draws something heroic out of them, something that is visceral, and real. Tom Russell writes great songs. Truly, great songs.

Wounded Heart of America, a collection of artists covering the songs of Russell, is far more than homage. It is a series of performances by singers and songwriters that weave together a larger story of America. It is Russell’s America, seen through the eyes of illegals and Mexican-Americans, Japanese-American citizens relocated during the Second World War; through the words of Alaskan natives and heartbroken drunks, wide-eyed young lovers, Texas State Troopers, and half-cocked Outcasts. It is truly the wounded heart of America, the people who belly up to the bar in search of something they can’t name, of the midnight floor cleaners prowling silent shopping malls, of cops and outlaws, bar-room preachers and justice denied.

The list of performers loaning their talent to the collection is impressive; even more so when you realize that they are some of the best songwriters and interpreters of the last couple of generations. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Johnny Cash, Dave Van Ronk and Beat legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti occupy one stellar end of the spectrum, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely and Ian Tyson another, Doug Sahm, Nancy Griffith, Iris DeMent, and Laurie Lewis yet another; and there is still room on the disc for contributions by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Suzy Boggus. As performers, it is as talented a group as you will gather anywhere. More than that, and key, is the stunning reality that it is also a collection of some of the best songwriters in America.

The coherence of the album is remarkable, given the stable of talent, and the fact that it does represent a full and lengthy songwriting career. Russell has produced more than a catalog; the album reflects a quality that places Russell in pretty rarefied company—Springsteen, Guthrie come to mind. Each has produced a body of work that is a tapestry, gathering the strands of a much larger story; each strand able to stand alone, yet completely of a piece with the next. It is a considerable accomplishment. And, it is self-evident in this CD.

Whether it is Dave Alvin’s aching baritone telling the story of fringe-dwelling wanderer, or Dave Van Ronk’s off-kilter and obtuse tale extolling the simple unpleasant existence of the “other” in America- the Black Sheep, philandering, too-loud relative whose primary activity is to embarrass the family, the lyrics are balanced by performances that are melded with the style of the particular artist. More than that, Russell’s intrinsic solidity as a songwriter provides a foundation that allows the performer to transcend their own style; to fuse with a larger story. That is a quality unique to truly great songs; Russell offers a dozen and a half of them here.

Russell is a one of the most literate, thoughtful, and astute songwriters on the scene today. He can turn a mean and artful phrase; to do it in the context of a genuine, heartfelt story of human longing, and passion, and experience, well, that is the essence of art. And Russell is an artist, from the rich and passionate original artwork that adorns the CD to the deeply expressive lyrics and eclectic American melodic stylings of the song.

This CD is flat-out brilliant.