So, you’ve never heard of Tom Russell? Join the club.
Songwriters, unlike performers, are often unknown. Tom Russell is a cult figure around the world, especially in Great Britain and Canada, but he remains a stranger to most American audiences. A self-proclaimed maverick who has avoided Nashville’s commercial sellout, Russell admits this is both the good news and the bad. He’s an expert on how not to be a legend in his own time.
With 20 recordings in 25 years, Russell may, however, be the most prolific songwriter/ balladeer to emerge from the folk movement. He’s part poet, part novelist and part musician, and his “acoustic, Americana, folk-country” music carries his sensual, visual and emotionally layered lyrical narratives. Russell couples this with a voice that is deep, sonorous and at times, archival in its delivery. One would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite CD in the impressive lineup that includes The Rose of San Joaquin, Song of the West, Borderland and a “best-of” collection, The Long Way Around.
His memorable songs are enriched with backup by lead guitarist Andrew Hardin, among others, as well as various vocal accompaniments, but among Russell’s recording triumphs, the most compelling is The Man from God Knows Where. Dedicated to the emigrant experience in America and enriched by the talents of the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, this folk/opera was nominated for a Grammy in 1999.
Drawing from his rich Norwegian/ Irish roots, Russell creates a listening experience that is pure theater. He is the legacy to unnamed heroes who settled the Midwest, ranched California, toiled in the cities and traveled America in search of themselves.
“The American primitive man” (The Man from God Knows Where) was often the outcast, as well as a pioneer. Like poet Carl Sandberg, Russell has honored the painful birthing of pioneer and early 20th-century America.
Russell’s songs about life, love and history have been recorded by the late Johnny Cash, Ian Tyson, K.D. Lang, Brian Burns, Dave Alvin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jerry Jeff Walker, to name a few. Russell is also responsible for cowriting such roots classics as “Navajo Rug” with Ian Tyson and “Outbound Plane” with Nanci Griffith.
His CDs are recorded by Hightone Records and distributed by Dark Angel, but Russell has formed his own label as well, Frontera, which is a vehicle for niche pieces. Notable is In Between Films, an homage to a New York piano player, and his newest release, Indians, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs. “My first love was always Native Americans,” Russell says. “I’m still writing about them.”
Now living in El Paso, Texas, Russell may be America’s most truthful seer. His autobiographical Modern Art explores the 1940-60s, bringing to light much that was missed by the postwar generation. A brutal honesty and tenderness sets his songs apart; their simplicity is endearing. Though you may hear him on the stages of Elko, Nevada, or Santa Clarita, California, don’t count on him to lean on the cowboy culture. Ride the whole range with the Russell experience. You’ll be glad you did.
Corinne Brown is a native Coloradan, Western author, staff writer for Persimmon Hill and fashion writer for Western & English Today and True West.