A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Summer 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 2
Russell Back on the High Road Again
with His Songs
By: Martin Hintz
Western songwriting maestro Tom Russell is heading back to the Auld Sod for a round of shows in November, with fans eager to hear his latest recording of original compositions, October in the Railroad Earth. The disc was released March 15, 2019, on Frontera Records in North America and internationally with Proper Records. Russell described the songs and sound as “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield.”
Russell featured 10 songs, including the title from the acclaimed Irish film Small Engine Repair, with Bill Kirchen on lead electric guitar and Eliza Gilkyson singing backup. One of the more gripping songs is by the Grammy Award-winning Texmaniacs who appear doing Isadore Gonzalez, a track about a Mexican cowboy who died in England during Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
Tom Russell with his painting of Luke Kelly of The Dubliners. As a painter, Russell has been termed a "Western Expressionist," a "Colorist" and a "Hillbilly Fauvist." His work is represented in 10 world galleries and several major museums, including The El Paso Museum of Art.
Small Engine Repair features “Doug,” an aspiring country singer, but a loser in a rundown small town with nobody believing in his voice and musical talent. His wife had left him and only his best friend believed in him. But Doug has one last chance to make it. The 2006 movie was written and directed by Dublin-based Niall Heery, starring Iain Glen, Steven Mackintosh and Stuart Graham.
The movie won Best Irish First Feature at the 2006 Galway Film Fleadh, with other awards including Director's Choice - Boston Irish Film Festival Breakthrough Award for Niall Heery; The Irish Film and TV Awards Audience Award & Best Film; Nashville Film Festival Audience Award & Best Actor for Steven Mackintosh; and the Cherbourg-Octeville British Irish Film Festival
Over the years, Russell songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, The Texas Tornados, k.d. lang, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Jason Boland, Nanci Griffith, Katy Moffatt, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Iris Dement, Dave Alvin, Suzy Bogguss, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Iain Glenn and a hundred others.
He has published a book of songwriting quotes (co-edited with Sylvia Tyson), a detective novel (in Scandinavia) and a book of letters with writer Charles Bukowski. His recent works include two books from Bangtail Press: 120 Songs of Tom Russell, and Blue Horse/Red Desert - The Art of Tom Russell, a book of selected paintings. In 2016, Russell published a book of essays: Ceremonies of the Horsemen. The essays, are centered on the American West and include an essay on Johnny Cash for which Russell won a 2015 ASCAP AWARD for music journalism.
Russell's songs "Tonight We Ride" and "Navajo Rug" were chosen by members of the Western Writers of America as two of the top 100 Western songs of all time. He is currently working on a new art book to be titled: The Ballad of Western Expressionism.
Russell got an early start celebrating his Irishness. “We always wore green on St. Patrick's Day and sang songs. I think my mother made cookies with green frosting,” he recalled of his growing up years in Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a master's degree in sociology of law and criminology. He and his wife Nadine now commute between their homes in Austin and Switzerland.
“I actually did meet my wife in a Swiss honky-tonk in the town of Schwarzenegg…The Dream Valley Saloon. The owner had two tame buffalo in his yard (well, sorta tame) and I asked him where he got them…"Geneva," he said. I never figured that one out. Late,r we were married in Elko with Ramblin' Jack and Ian Tyson as best men. Then again in the Swiss alps with an alphorn player and a Swiss accordion band providing music,” he told one interviewer.
Rolling Stone once declared Russell to be "the greatest living folk-country songwriter." His new album (March 2019) offers no reason to disagree." -Folk Radio UK, Americana UK. 2/19
Tom Russell's art brings together primitive, Native American, Southwestern, and Mexican influences, as he does in his music, with an eye as keen as his ear. -Monte Hellman, Director: Two Lane Blacktop
His oft-published bio relates that in 1969, Russell spent a year teaching in Ibadan, Nigeria, during the Biafran War. He has also lived in Spain and Norway -- and played music for a circus in Puerto Rico. He began his musical career in the early 1970s in Vancouver, performing and
dodging tossed beer bottles in strip bars along Skid Row. He later relocated to Texas and formed a band with singer-pianist Patricia Hardin and even opened for Robert Hunter, a Lyricist for the Grateful Dead. in 2007, on one of Russell's five appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, he debuted the controversial "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" which has since gone viral because of the current Mexico-US border situation.
The Singer talked easily about his love of Irish music, especially the passion. "The history, the poetry in the lyrics, and it's my heritage. I can feel the songs in my bones. And it's the bedrock to our folk music,” he explained. “Irish music so much fun to hear because it has spark. It's great to sing in a pub and it’s great sing-along music.”
For Russell, Irish music is special because it is soaked with Irish history, whiskey and stout. “It seems to issue forth from the graves of the great bards,” he offered.
His favorite Irish musicians include Finbar Furey, who appears on his 2015 hit The Rose of Roscrae, singing "Carrickfergus." He also loves Luke Kelly and The Dubliners, Maura O'Connell (who also sings on The Rose of Roscrae), The Pogues and Dolores Keane, who performed on Russell’s record The Man From God Knows Where. He told how he grew up on the music of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, digging Paul Brady, as well.
His favorite Irish songs are far-reaching, with such popular tunes as Raglan Road, Carrickfergus, Dublin in the Rare Old Times, and The Town I Loved So Well.
Russell is no stranger to his ancestral homeland, playing Ireland at least 30 times. “We tour in Ireland every two years when we have a new record. We usually have a driver, Jim Heaney, who is our promoter in Belfast. And a van.”
“Irish audiences are the best! I'm not just saying that because I'm mostly Irish and love the country…it's true…they get the poetry in the lyrics and take the stories to heart. They grew up singing,” Russell asserted with smiling conviction.
Naturally, Russell has a list of top Irish venues in which to perform: The Errigle Inn in Belfast, Whelans in Dublin, Tom Stapleton's venues in Roscrae and Ballymaloe Grainstore in Shanagarry, Co. Cork. He’ll be appearing at all of these in November. Look for details on: www.tomrussell.com
Even with all the driving from show to show, the singing and enjoying the Irish as friends, it’s still not too hard to find time for himself on a Ireland/Northern Ireland tour. Of course, Russell heads to the local pub for kicking back. “We love the craic at the pubs. Love to watch the people and feel the history,” he said. O'Donoghue's in Dublin is a favorite. The Dubliners band came out of there. Usually there's a sessiun going on, he pointed out happily.
To stay in physical and mental shape on the road when not performing, his wife Nadine has a masters in psychology and is also a yoga teacher. “She keeps us well fit. We walk an hour a day, do yoga and eat well. She also knows how to plan tours so they're not overwhelming. We stay in decent hotels. We read a lot,” he pointed out. To set up the Irish, English and Scottish tours, Russell is booked by the Bob Patterson Agency out of the UK.
“I've been playing solo the last few years and love it! I can sing and play better because I hear myself. I can also tell any stories I feel like. The shows have been going over great. I love the musicians who've played with me over the years, but solo is almost my living memoir brought to the stage,” he continued.
Still, Russell praised the many entertainers he’s been with in the past: among them have been Dolores Keane, Maura O'Connell, Sharon Shannon, piper Eoin O'Riabhagh and Frances Black. He used to tour Ireland with Nanci Griffith and there were always a great score of Irish musicians,” he indicated.
However, Russell has never used an Irish recording studio but was sure there were some live songs up on You Tube performed in Ireland. “I've also been on The Late Show on TV, on the same night as Enya,” he added.
He both composed his own Irish tunes or also used works by other musicians such as "The Fields of Athenry" and usually sings an Irish medley in his opening set.
Russell’s Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West came out in 2015, featuring 25 new original songs on two records with numerous guest voice appearances by some of America's greatest singer/songwriters. One of the more gripping songs is by the Grammy Award-winning Texmaniacs who appear doing Isadore Gonzalez, a track about a Mexican cowboy who died in England during Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
Critics called all the renditions “ wonderful ride from stories through time and space from an American treasure. For value added, an overture is performed by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, arranged by Mats Halling.
Yes, Russell does have a bit of the Norsk in him, as well. His great-grandfather Louis Larson hailed from Bergen, Norway, and married linen maid Bridget O’Malley in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the late 19th century. The couple raised their brood in Lawler, Iowa, where the family had a general store. Grandfather Albert Russell, an Iowa horse dealer and road builder rom New Hampton, who wooed and married the Larsons’ daughter Gertie. Tom Russell’s dad Charles was numbered in their clan).
“I realized I had a larger theme – an Irish kid and his vision of the Last Frontier and his lifelong love/hate relationship with Rose. The ‘opera’ is formed around Dutton, now at 90 years of age, looking back on his life in the West,” Russell said.
There are 52 tracks and bits from dozens of voices, including Finbar Furey, Maura O'Connell, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly and additional noted performers It’s a double record that comes with a book of lyrics and stories. Fans and newcomers to Russell music can check it out on www.fronterarecords.com. Roscrae has been hailed as a top folk album by The Irish Times, Mojo Magazine and The Los Angeles Times and numerous other publications. It is part of trilogy that began back in 1998 with The Man from God Knows Where.
That recording explored his family's origins in Norway, Ireland, and the American West. He followed it in 2005 in with Hotwalker, which delved into post-WWII America and romanticized marginal figures in the creative arts. In 2016, Frontera Records released the second Russell anthology: Gunpowder Sunsets.
Catch the Rose of Roscrae title track at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBh3sl3vAa8
"I Talk to God" (by Russell with Maura O'Connell and photos by Nan Lazzaretto, Russell’s sister. ((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0F8WfceBYI).