Sometimes luck just runs. Consider California-born, Texan-by-conviction and New York resident Tom Russell, a singer-songwriter who has been making music for almost 40 years without achieving any mass success apart from being big in Scandinavia.
A week ago he was in New York promoting his new album Blood and Candle Smoke, a mission which included an appearance on the Dave Letterman Show.
Events conspired and Russell’s spot coincided with Letterman’s on air revelation about being blackmailed by a fellow CBS employee and his confession to affairs with female co-workers.
The show is pre-recoded which is why the Letterman admissions were front page news in The New York Post and Daily News. So when Russell sang East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam, the first song from the new disc, he was being watched by Letterman’s biggest audience in years.
I became aware of Russell’s new album when a good friend emailed that this could be the record of the year. After one listening, I was inclined to agree – but it’s been a strong year.
Russell has long been recognised as a brilliant, literate, imaginative and original talent. A couple of his songs became well known when they were recorded by others (Gall Del Cielo, an epic tune about cock-fighting, was made popular by Joe Ely, Doug Sahm fans love St Olav’s Gate, Johnny Cash made Veterans Day his own and Ian Tyson was huge in Canada with Mano a Mano) but it has been in the last decade and a half that his fame has grown to anything like the dimensions his talent deserves.
The thing about Blood and Candle Smoke is that he’s found a sound to match his songs. His career has been the traditional singer-songwriter gig, mostly playing with a sideman or woman, usually with a guitar, sometimes a piano.
When he started out in California he teamed up with a piano-playing singer Patricia Hardin and later his sidekicks included another great singer-songwriter Steve Young (best known for such songs as Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and Seven Bridges Road).
To get an understanding of Tom Russell’s skill as a writer and what informs and intrigues him, look at this long essay about recent Mexican border killings on the Rumpus.
Russell’s recent good fortune has been to walk into the Wave Lab Studios in Tucson Arizona, a musical repository of the very best in insurgent country experimentation, with a particular eye to that uplifting soundscape that seeps out of the vast south-west of the USA.
One of the bands that made a name for itself from music produced at Wave Lab is Calexico – a local band whose distinctive Tex-Mex sound with dripping horns and exquisite guitar was perfected by producer Craig Schumacher, the man who has lifted the songs on Tom Russell’s CD to new heights.
It is as fine a collection of songs as you’ll find this year – or any for that matter. The song from Letterman is, like many of the tunes, an auto-biographical number that places him in Africa in the late 60s (hence the title West of Woodstock, east of Veitnam) and is romanced by a lyrical horn line.
Other songs include a stunning memoir of life in Mexico discovering Nina Simone (at one stage the great songstress is chatting t Hank Williams) and a real late 60s cross-over tune Santa Ana Winds (inspired apparently by a Joan Didion essay Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream) in which you can hear the lost soul of Gram and Emmylou.
My personal favourite (and everyone I’ve shared this collection with comes up with a different choice of personal treasures) is Mississippi River Running Backwards which is about a world upside down and making no sense.
Anchored in an event from 1912 when that mighty river was said to have run backwards after an earthquake, Russell has patched together apocalyptic threads and produced the kind of epic we remember from times past. It could have been written about the dust storms of late last month.
Here’s a taste of the lyric:
“People, let me tell you, there was an earthquake down South in 1912, and they say the Mississippi River ran backwards/The world turned upside down for a few days and all creation was a children’s nursery rhyme/One of the darker kind/The Land of the Razz-Ma-Tazz!/Folks began to come apart/Fuller Brush men hanging in trees; insurance executives run out of town on rails/Tarred and feathered/Blow Gabriel Blow”.
Just imagine that with swirling Mexican guitars, blood thick horns and syncopation like Robbie Robertson and the boys made famous. It’s just pure joy.
The truly sensational quality of Russell’s lyrics (he brushes off the tag Americana and tosses in his own – “desert-noir”) and the richness of Calexico’s sound makes this the very best of American song-writing matched with the very best American music.
You’ll travel one hell of a long way to find something more riveting, captivating, engrossing and enjoyable.
As the man sings: Blow Gabriel, Blow.
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