Tom Russell’s magnum opus, his “Western Opera” or “Cowboy Musical” will be out in mid-April, debuting at Passim at 47 Palmer Street under Harvard Square, once the home of the legendary Club 47. It was one of the very few venues that kept a sort of vernacular American music alive even as it morphed into something else. Club 47 played “folk music” when I started going there in ’65, but it was already showing songwriters, bluegrass, and blues — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I saw Tom Rush there before he had a mustache. Jim Rooney was a skinny kid with cowboy boots and ran the door as well as playing in a band. Maria Muldaur had just married Jeff Muldaur, and played with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, before Kweskin became part of the odd Fort hill Cult under former musician Mel Lyman. Ian Tyson, the great Canadian cowboy singer, played with his then wife Sylvia, singing “Someday Soon”, “Four Strong Winds” and my favorite, “Summer Wages”.
I kept going there through the early ’70s. The last act I remember seeing there was Jimmy Buffett, who didn’t have a band, only a backup singer. His songs were fine, including the number “If We Only Had Saxophones”, when Buffett and his backup guitarist made saxophone noises through the breaks.
Tom’s album, two CD’s and a book, is almost novelistic AND thoroughly musical. It is the saga of the West, seen through the memories of a ninety year old outlaw. It starts dramatically as he stands on the gallows in mid- life, waiting to die for stealing horses. He escapes the hangman, then remembers his youth in Ireland, and takes off to participate in the whole bloody history of the west. As an old man he returns to Ireland, still searching for his lost love.
The breadth and (and depth) of the music is like nothing else. New songs by Tom and others, an incredible cross-section of living artists including Ian, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, Thad Beckman, Sourdough Slim, Guy Clark (who does a version of Desperadoes waiting for a Train from his home, sounding as ancient as the desert), Gretchen Peters, and Henry Real Bird. There are also posthumous performances by, among others, Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, and Leadbelly. There is poetry from Walt Whitman and orchestral backing by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. There are, quoting the libretto, “Indian voices and chants, old cowboy songs, Mexican corridos, Swiss Yodel Choirs, French ballads”; hymns and Irish folksongs, Gallo de Cielo (“The damn chicken song”); even a ballad based on John Graves’ wonderful novella The Last Running.
Amazingly, it tells a coherent story, and the new material stands proudly with the classics. You also get an 82 page book with the libretto, the lyrics, and the history of each song and performer. You can see why I say that it’s something of a new genre. And as big as it is, at one point Tom wished he had ten discs to fill because there is so much more that he wanted to put in.
I will be putting up a lot of material about Rose of Rosecrae in the next few months. Stay tuned!
Below, my sister Karen, Tom, my brother- in- law George Graham, and Nadine, at Passim the last time Tom played there.