Tuesday, August 12, 2008
CD Review: Tom Russell, Wounded Heart of America
Wounded Heart of America
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.