HE WAS once called “the finest American folk-roots artist that most Americans have never heard of” but, entering his sixties, all that is changing for singer-songwriter Tom Russell.
At an age when many artists are content to trade on past glories, Russell is producing music of great richness and vitality and is gaining more admirers with each release. His latest album, the excellent Mesabi, further builds on his remarkable middle-aged career momentum.
“My career seems to be going in reverse compared to most people,s” he notes with wry amusement, speaking by phone from his London hotel. “My label, Shout! Factory, see me as a developing artist.
“My last two albums have been my best selling records, my following has been increasing threefold and my audience has been getting younger as well, I’m getting a lot of people in their twenties and thirties coming to the shows. I feel the doors are wide open for me now, audiences seem to be thirsting for good solid songwriting.”
The Calexico connection
Solid songwriting and masterful storytelling is what Russell delivers in spades in a recording career that stretches back to the 1970s. While much of his work has been rooted in the country tradition, it has also drawn on Tex-Mex, folk, and the cowboy music of his youth.
Purposely avoiding the mainstream, Russell has steadily mined his own artistic seam and in recent years that seam has yielded musical gold. His move to Shout! Factory in 2009 for Blood and Candle Smoke saw Russell find another musical gear.
Recorded with members of Calexico and others, it sounds like nothing else in his catalogue. Russell played his guitar and sang live with the band, providing little direction and allowing the musicians to open up a natural space around him. Calexico also feature on Mesabi and Russell reveals how he first got together with the band.
“I was doing research ahead of making Blood and Candle Smoke,” he says, “I wanted to move in a wider direction and I was listening to a lot of younger bands but it seemed to me 80 per cent of what I was hearing was just aural wallpaper, but Calexico were one of the bands I listened to and they really stood out.
“I really liked the music they did for the soundtrack of the film on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, and I felt their sound came from the same base material as what I was doing. So I went to Tucson and met up with Craig Schumacher who produced their albums and he was the key figure in hooking me up with Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino.
“Once we started recording together it meshed really well, I love the way for instance that Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet can do all that Tex-Mex style music really well but he can also sound like Miles Davis if you need him to. The whole experience of working with Calexico jerked me away from that ‘Americana’ pigeonhole.”
Glamour and death
Mesabi takes its title from the Minnesota iron range located near the birthplace of Bob Dylan, and Dylan is one of the key influences on the album with Russell lyrically and musically referencing his work at several points. He also delivers a stand-out version of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ on which he is joined by Lucinda Williams and Calexico. Two songs on the album establish the themes which Russell explores throughout the set .
‘When Legends Die’ in which, musing on his childhood heroes, Russell sings ‘Most of ‘em are gone, but they fly around like angels /in my unconscious mind’. The other is ‘Farewell Never Never Land’
which describes the sad demise of child actor Bobby Driscoll who voiced Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney film then lapsed into drug abuse as he got older and was found dead in an abandoned tenement aged just 31.
“It fascinated me how so many of these famous child actors ended up,” Russell explains. “A lot of Americans don’t like to scratch beneath the cartoon surface of their lives but I think the story of someone like Bobby Driscoll says a lot about the US.
“I was struck by the irony that Driscoll who did Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, ended up being unable to cope with life as he got older. And his story led me onto ‘Ukulele Ike’ who voiced Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and sang ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ but died penniless and forgotten.”
The contrast between Hollywood glamour and real-life messiness is a thread running right through the album in songs such as ‘Furious Love (For Liz )’ which toasts Liz Taylor; ‘A Land Called Way Out There’ which references James Dean’s death; and the marvellous ‘Sterling Hayden’ which offers a compelling portrait of the tough-guy actor and his troubled career.
Immigrants and cowboys
Given his surname it is no surprise to learn that Russell has Irish roots and in one of his most notable albums, 1999’s The Man From God Knows Where, he produced a song cycle charting the immigrant experiences of his forebears.
“I was invited to do something by a Norwegian radio station and that enabled me to research my Norwegian ancestors who I hadn’t much information on,” he recalls. “I already knew a good bit about my Irish relations - I still have an aunt in Tipperary as it happens. In that album I wanted to set the record straight about the immigrant experience, for example the fact that it was mostly just the poor people who were processed at Ellis Island, if you were wealthy you could disembark in New York itself.”
That album formed part of Russell’s ongoing ‘American Trilogy’; he followed it with 2005’s “carnivalesque” Hotwalker about the beatniks, folkies, and assorted outsiders that he has long admired, like Bukowski, Kerouac, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and circus performer Little Jack Horton. Russell is now working on the final part of the trilogy.
“It will be all about the American west,” he reveals. “It will explore that tradition of cowboy songs and other music of the area and trace them all the way back to Spain. I’m writing a documentary as well on the subject and I’ll be making that with the film-maker Monte Hellman.”
While Russell fans can look forward to that album and film appearing in due course in the meantime Galway audiences can relish Russell’s forthcoming appearance in Kelly’s Bar on Friday January 27 at 8pm.
Tickets are €15. For more information contact 091 - 563804 or email [email protected]