Tom’s tour- and Book

A friend in Alberta snapped this photo of Tom Russell and Ian Tyson in fine form at a concert up there.

My informant said that he told a story of bringing his Swiss Father-in-law over the Continental Divide at night to visit us and our hounds and hawks. It could have been a fraught scene — “Poppi” says that his only English was “Fuck you, cowboy”, which as Tom said “went over real big with a bunch of drunk cowboys demanding encores of “Tonight We Ride”, but our French wine, our posole, and our animals disarmed him, not to mention my ability to speak French, and he now sends us German articles on falconry.

This story and many others are in Tom’s wonderful new collection of essays Ceremonies of the Horsemen. There are portraits of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, of Hemingway and Ian Tyson, Charles Portis and John Graves, and a piece on J P S Brown, a hard old man we both know who may be the best unknown cowboy novelist around. There is also that story about me and falconry, one about Gallo del Cielo (the “damn chicken song”) and the only English cockfight corrida I know, which will teach you all you need to know about cockfighting (and I don’t mean that sarcastically). It is a tragedy with laughs around the edges, although Tom has been known to claim that he wrote a version with a happy ending in which the rooster buys the Golden Spur Bar.
In the weirdest of these stories Tom ends up in the Swiss castle of Balthus’ widow, discussing their mutual admiration for Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle”. Buy this book! Nobody but Tom could ever have written it.

Leonard Cohen 1934- 2017 RIP

I first saw Leonard Cohen play at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Joni Mitchell, in an orange striped mini-dress, led him out.He looked like a rabbinical student. He played ‘Suzanne’ as I remember, and I vowed to buy it as soon as it was out. I have bought virtually everything he has done. I am not one to complain about Bob Dylan’s getting the Nobel, but Cohen was the best we had. He was a Zen Buddhist Jew with Catholic tendencies, and virtually the only person in the music world I considered to be a wise man. Despite the darkness and mortality of much of his work, he was also very funny.

When Libby looked up that first performance, she said my memory was wrong. I thought that Joni had been wearing a horizontal striped mini-dress; it was diagonally striped.

Here is one of my favorites; also one of the world’s best bar songs, though it is a lot more than that…

RIP: Merle Haggard,1937- 2016

 We are losing a lot of the great ones….

UPDATE: a great tribute from Wisconsin’s Kirk Hogan, MD, scientist, patent lawyer (!) elk hunter, gourmand, and neo- beat, whose letters often read like poems…

Great “Kern River”.
My top pick:
Didn’t even make the list of Merle’s top 35!
A day hasn’t gone by for decades I’m not singing 2-3.
No one, not Johnny Cash, not even Hank W., could write,
play, sing, immerse in and master American music like him.
Beloved by Garcia and Parsons.
Tanya Tucker said it best:
A simple man with an immense genius.
Listened to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong
… always within arm’s reach.One time in a bar in Livingston In February on break from Crow
to hear Christopher Parkening . . .   
Sad for us, not sad for him.
He and Harrison were beyond deserving of rest.


Tom Russell has a new album coming this fall, called Mesabi after the Iron Range mining country of northern Minnesota (Hibbing, home of Bob, Dylan stands there). It’s one of the best yet from the man who might be America’s best songwriter storyteller.

Tom’s work is unique. It is not just that he is hard to categorize, though that is part of it– I have heard him described as a folksinger, a country singer, a cowboy singer and – the term he prefers – an “American composer.” I have even heard him called a “Neo-Beat”, though his work in that vein has more to do with the strangeness and delights and weirdness of a youth in Southern California, when you could still believe it was a Golden State.

No; I think that one of the unique things about Tom is that he keeps on growing, with a body of writing ripening like old whiskey in oak kegs. As Libby says, the songs on Mesabi could not have been written by a young man. Many are sad but none are cheaply sentimental – see “Farewell Never Never Land”, where child actor turned junkie Bobby Driscoll snarls at a young Tom Russell “like a dog with a bone.”

The album is a ramble through Tom’s life, from its roots in a surreal but still shining California, through dreams and movies, to his present querencia of El Paso and, standing just across a border at once as porous as a sieve and starkly real, its dark twin Juarez. Tom, resisting every fashion, moved to El Paso in 1997 to become the primo bard of our sometimes deadly and ever- fascinating borderlands. Outsiders will never get it, but it’s a writers country, with a vein of stories that will never be exhausted. (Warren Zevon on LA : “They say this place is evil- that ain’t why I stay…”)

A sampler:

The album begins with the song “Mesabi”, a rousing kick-off that manages to combine Dylan’s youth there and Tom’s in LA, and maybe those of all of us drawn to wandering and storytelling, who as Kipling wrote “… yearned beyond the skyline where the strange roads go down”; those who would sing with Tom “Please don’t let me do the work my father did!” Its landscape runs from the iron-cold borders of the north to the alluring ones of the south, the home in his youth of “La Bamba” and mythical dark- eyed maidens.

“Farewell Never Never Land”: I thought I wouldn’t like this one as I’ve never had a whole lot of use for Peter Pan. I was wrong. Some perceptive writing teacher – William Kittredge? – said that good writing must approach the edge of sentimentality without ever going over that edge. The song balances “straight on til morning” against the scornful unyielding pride of former child actor Bobby Driscoll; like so many of Tom’s songs its virtues are as literary as they are musical, except that you don’t find yourself singing short stories.

Same goes for his remarkable evocation of Sterling Hayden, a larger than life figure who would not fit into today’s Hollywood (there are a lot of these characters inhabiting Tom’s work). Hayden was a Gloucester fisherman on a sailing ship, then a Hollywood star. Then he threw it away: then he wrote a good book about that. His autobiographical book The Wanderer has always been a favorite of mine. Tom “digs him up again”* with a perfect portrait.

In “The Land Called Way Out There” Tom departs southern California with a song about the death of James Dean, a song about dread and the chill of mortality; a haunted ballad that will scare you into a cold sweat at 2AM. Or perhaps his actual farewell to California is in “Roll the Credits Johnny”, a romantic – in the best of senses – tribute to movies as they were, when they still meant something.

And so we arrive at the border. “God Created Bordertowns” is merry, a carnival song – but the carnival is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and the dancers are grinning skeletons in fancy dress. “Good Night Juarez” is another song on the same imaginary soundtrack that also features the Anglo’s narcocorrida “Hills of Old Juarez” from 2001, which in retrospect saw the current plight of what some call Murder City better than any politician or analyst – the poet’s curse. And you don’t have to watch it on television – if you live in El Paso, you can look across the river from your top floor windows and watch it unfold. If you have a heart, “Good Night Juarez” should break it.

The album returns to serenity, as it should, with “Love Abides”, but not without a detour through the elegant but somehow ominous“Jai Alai”, about an aging pelota player. The bonus tracks are interesting too. “The Road to Nowhere”, from the newly released Monty Hellman movie of the same name, makes me want to see the movie. But the remarkable cover, with Lucinda Williams and Calexico, of Bob Dylan’s most haunting song “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, made my hair stand on end. I never thought anything could beat the original, but this one does.

This album won’t be out until fall, when Tom will be touring. If you’d like to hear these ballads live, check out the schedule on his website and make sure you catch him when he comes to your town.

* Tom and I both like to plant quotes and references.So OK, scholars: what am I almost quoting here?

Update: it occurs that I should add a note on Tom’s art book Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell, coming in the fall from Bangtail Press. I have already sent some thoughts on the subject to them:

I have a lot of art on my walls, from Giorgio di Chirico to Russ Chatham to folk paintings by Mongolian nomads. But lately one that hangs right here by my desk catches my and everyone else’s eye; a little oil of a crazy spangled border rooster, the Gallo de Cielo himself, by songwriter and artist Tom Russell.

Style? I suspect Picasso and other great faux- naif Euro tricksters were in his head first, but I see affinities everywhere in the west and especially in our southwestern “querencia”: all things New Mexican and Mexican, Border and Desert: santos, retablos, El Dia de los Muertos and La Virgen de Guadalupe; Colima pottery dogs and Plains Indian paintings, stories and songs on hides and tipis.

And the subjects are pure Tom Russell, out of his unique songbook: not just the mestizo border but also cowboys and Indians and dancing skeletons with sixguns; horses and dogs and roosters and flowers; and, further off in geography and time but still a part of Tom’s world, boxers and beats and bluesmen and old rock and rollers, the fifties that formed us– his is a wild wide world. Buy this book for a window into it…

Guest Post: Tom Russell at Knuckleheads in KC

I had hoped to attend, but when I realized I couldn’t get to Tom Russell’s show in Kansas City I contacted my friend on the spot, honorary Magdalenian Jennifer Wilding, and inquired whether she would be interested in “covering” it for Q- blog. She was, and took her friend Rick Malsick. Turned out Tom was new to them, but it didn’t hurt their appreciation (or understanding) a bit. Rick:

“I wasn’t familiar with Tom Russell. Come to find out he wrote Outbound Plane, a damn fine Nancy Griffith song. But I didn’t know that going in. Anyway, impressions. Wish I’d been taking notes. First, there was the sign at Knuckleheads imploring patrons to muzzle their cell phones and to keep quiet during the performance. Singer-songwriters have to love that. Then there was the music. The collaboration with Thad Beckman was very tight. I have to believe these two have spent some time together. The guitars were always is sync, even when the rhythms were tricky, and the vocals were always in harmony. But the most powerful impression was the songwriting. These are songs for smart people, with the right blend of sincerity and irony, pathos and humor.

“Moreover, his songs take an inductive approach, telling stories of individuals – the aging fighter, the guy stealing electricity, the dude who loses everything in a cockfight – in such a way that even those at great cultural remove can feel the pain. Finally, there was the audience. Many were longtime fans and Tom’s rapport with them was as funny as it was loving. It’s good to know that there’s a fan base in KC for this kind of first-class music.”

Jennifer adds:

“For me, Tom Russell made the evening all about appreciation. His appreciation for his friend, the [Kansas- born–SB] writer George Kimball, who was in the audience, for the Knuckleheads staff, for his most excellent musical collaborator and for his audience. In return, Russell got a whole lot of appreciation back. My favorite moments were the two times he launched into songs, being absolutely certain that the audience was going to chime in for the sing-along moments. It was like he had leapt into the audience, counting on them to pass him overhead from person to person, but he never left the stage.”



… de Cielo!

This whimsical portrait of Tom Russell’s celestial fighting rooster came to live at Casa Q for my 61st birthday, as Tom and Libby conspired. Or as he put it, “…that was one we kept in our private collection but it wanted to move to Magdalena near the other wild birds.”

(In addition to his being a songwriter Tom is an acclaimed artist who does many of his album covers– see “Wounded Heart” below– and book covers as well).

Gallo joins the Hans Windgassen portrait of Les Girls, by my left elbow at this desk where I write.

Tom sings what is to my knowledge the only corrida about a brave rooster here.

Two albums with the song: Tom here; Joe Ely’s Border- flavored cover, with Mexican- style guitar and accordion here.

(Got a link to that version too, recorded in Italy–!! One must wonder what the Italian audience made of a bunch of Texans singing about a heroic chicken…)


Tom Russell would be too modest to say so but he might just be the best and most lasting singer- songwriter of my generation; while some annoyingly typecast him as a western or cowboy or border balladeer he is in all ways an American bard, a living link between cowboys and the beats and all manner of chroniclers and historians and poets of the “Old Weird America.”

He blew through town last week with his wife and Swiss father- in- law for a flying visit, posole and green chile, and intense conversation. We had fun (and I think “Poppi” was relieved that we ate cheese and drank wine in addition to chile, vodka, and maybe frozen quail). I’ll refer you to Tom’s vivid and flattering account at his indispensable blog. More to come I’m sure!

Rebecca O’Connor (buy her book!) came through too, with falcons and Brittany, to do some research and decide what rifle the heroine of her novel- in progress should carry through a post- apocalyptic but “re- wilded” landscape of the future. She had never shot so much as a .22 before, but with enthusiasm and only a hint of trepidation tried a Winchester .30- 30, a Mauser 7 X 57, and an SKS. Any guesses as to which she chose? She will be writing about it and sending photos– again, more to come.