Tom Russell brings his impeccably crafted songs to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for two separate shows
By Bill Nevins
Tom Russell is among America’s most direct, emotionally clear and honest songwriters. His songs reveal a cinematic storytelling ability and a gift for crafting phrases and scenes that vibrate in the ear and tease the heart, until a listener finds himself playing the songs over and over.
A Russell song might contain a phrase like, “Everything’s gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez,” or, “Baby pulled her blue dress on and left … down the Rio Grande.” Or he might write of immigrants frozen dead in the California snow, or a border desperado hunting Apache scalps and stealing General Black Jack Pershing’s prized horse bit along with the dancing stallion that “just happened” to be attached.
Russell has woven his well-crafted story songs — and parallel songs of personal regret, troubled relationships, endurance and grit — through decades of work as a cab driver, solo performer, band leader, musical collaborator (with the stellar likes of Dave Alvin and The Flatlanders) and, more recently, as a portrait painter honing his skills on the secluded plot of land outside of El Paso, where he finally settled with his wife some years back.
His latest album, the just-released Mesabi, may be the masterpiece of Russell’s accumulated career. In a recent interview with Local iQ, Russell talked about his work, life, music and art.
Local iQ: You will be playing in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe on the weekend just after Thanksgiving. Do you have anything you are particularly thankful for?
Tom Russell: I’m thankful to be on the road, creating art. I’m thankful for my wife, because together we’re a team bent on moving the music and art forward. I think my writing is digging deeper, uncovering masks and getting down to the bone of the matter. I think my last two records, Blood and Candle Smoke and Mesabi, have been my best and most revealing efforts. I also think my ability to sing and perform the material live has improved vastly.
iQ: You have been living in the El Paso/Juarez area for many years now. Has the escalated violence, especially on the Mexico side of the border, impacted you and your writing? TR: It certainly has entered my writing. I’m working on a novel about it, and also have three songs on the current record, Mesabi, about the situation in Mexicoâ€¨
iQ: You are also a painter, and as has been said many times, your narrative songs have more than a touch of the novelist in them.
TR: Painting and songwriting impact and intersect with each other in mysterious ways. In both painting and songwriting I give a lot of leeway to the angels and muses who seem to take the best songs and paintings to a place my rational mind wouldn’t venture.
iQ: Do you have more collaborations planned? And what are you listening to? TR: We have songwriter trains with some of my favorite writers, and we have one planned for next April (from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore., and back). I listen to a lot of flamenco when I paint. Old stuff like Camaron de la Isla, the passionate deep-song singer. I also listen to Leonard Cohen and Dylan and Lucinda Williams and Ry Cooder. And jazz and classical.â€¨
iQ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where the U.S. is heading now, and more generally the Mexico border and the rest of the world, both politically and socially? TR: I don’t trouble myself with political forecasts. I personally think Ramblin’ Jack Elliott should be on the $100 bill.
iQ: At your present age, status and artistic engagement, what can you say about life and love?
TR: I don’t feel I have any particular “age” or “status.” I remain outside the confines of these things that worry most souls. I just paint and write and let the chips fall where they may. As far as relationships, I’ve been happily married for six years to a wonderful and beautiful Swiss lady who has saved my life and kept the art moving forward
iQ: Would you mind talking a bit about your new album Mesabi, and how you came to write it and record it? TR: We recorded Mesabi in many different locations: Tucson with the great band Calexico and Lucinda Williams, then L.A. with Van Dyke Parks and on to San Antonio with Augie Meyers. It’s an American journey. The record starts with a reference to Dylan’s home country, the Mesabi iron-ore range in Minnesotta. I think about Dylan every day of my life, and the impact he’s had on our music and culture. So it’s a truth journey. You have to write your own songs. I also included two songs from the new Monte Hellman movie, The Road to Nowhere. I wrote the musical soundtrack to his film.
7:30p, Fri., Nov. 25
Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, 505.268.0044 $20-$25