Generic?

                                               Constant commenter Lucas Machais wondered if the cover photo on the new ed of Querencia– the- book, seen below with my other  new covers, was “generic”. I am afraid I got more indignant than I should have. We pay attention to the particular here, not the general. I answered that the cover photo

“… was taken up Anchor Canyon five miles east in the Magdalena Range,
looking northeast over a cabin built by the Strozzis, a family of the
local Italian- Swiss “cousins” early in the last century, then over Lee
Henderson’s ranch where we run the dogs and hawks and Vadim Gorbatov
drew the quail. Strawberry Peak, where Charlie Galt found the
northernmost specimen of Crotalus lepidus, stands at the edge of the Rio
Grande Rift; the Big River flows north to south, left to right, behind
it and 2500 feet below.”

Dogs on ranch, Lee’s horses.

Lee and Gorbatov quail, Vadim with Libby on the ranch, and studying a Swainson’s hawk nest there:

Me with Charlie’s snake, a million years ago:

The infamous Ferruginous hawk nest made, all but the cup, of fencing wire, which so fascinated the Russians.

I had hoped to “quote” Russ Chatham’s cover painting of Betsy and her hounds on the original Q, itself an accidental near- quote of this well- known  shot  of Karen Blixen and HER hounds,  with this haunted pic of me on a Christmas hunt on the plain, but was persuaded, reluctantly,  to go with a different concept. None of this is anything but intensely local.  And all but the Blixen take place within the field of the first cover photo.

Not New England

A lot of people think of New Mexico, especially southern New Mexico, as all arid. But our landscape is vertical; ecologically and biologically, we can go from the Mexican border to Canada, from Hepatic tanagers through Red faced warblers to Steller’s jays and Hermit thrushes to Clark’s nutcrackers, in a four- mile stretch.

I need a little help these  days to get into the high country. But yesterday Magdalena’s resident poet and fellow outdoorsman Bruce Holsapple and I went to the San Mateos and drove the ridge from Grassy Lookout in the south, where Betsy and I once worked as fire lookouts, to Whittington Lookout in the north, a journey of about eight miles over 9000 feet and often  over ten. Not only did it look like northern New England; it smelled like it. Heavy cloud cover kept birds and game animals invisible and vistas short, but the Aspens were glorious. And it is always good to talk with someone who enjoys both mountain lions and William Carlos Williams. The only thing missing was Ruffed grouse…

 

Great Local Photo

Shamelessly stolen from the Golden Spur Saloon website, which is replete with good stuff;  a portrait of Lawrence Aragon and Johnny Krynitz playing at the Spur last summer. They both live and raise cattle 30 dirt- track miles north of town, near the ghost town of Riley, or as we are more likely to call it, Santa Rita. Lawrence has a small farm plot on the seasonally dry river, one that  has been in his family for generations; Johnny (who is Spanish, a Vigil*) runs his cows in the uplands. Photo by Magdalena filmmaker Matt Middleton, who I think should do more black and white portraits.

* A local reminds me that ears from elsewhere read the name “Vigil” as something like “VIDjil” rather than as it is understood here” VeeHEEL”. Correct and noted.

La Loca

First there were my old friend John Davila, Catron County rancher, world traveler, jack of all trades… in the old days and today.

and his then wife Becky…

They were among the first friends I made in New Mexico. They are in Querencia- the- book in several places, and came up to Albuuquerque to comfort me with a bottle of Jack Daniels the day Betsy died.

Their daughter Ungie (Ungelbah Davila ), the complete New Mexico kid–Spanish, Navajo, Scots Mormon– is as good looking as her folks, and also a multimedia  talent in art, poetry, photography, and now as editor of her new  Albuquerque- based glossy magazine La Loca, which covers our local tricultural version of the Fifties- revival- rockabilly- punk- western- hotrods- motorcycles- pinup- and whatever else can be thrown in arts and visual culture. If some of it bemuses those of us who lived in the REAL fifties, it is still pure fun and a visual treat, and our version has a real local flavor.

Apparently, the style is more widespread than I thought. I just bought the excellent new album by Alberta’s rising star Corb Lund, Cabin Fever. He can sing about cows, oil rigs, and .44 Russian antique revolvers, but when I heard the lyrics below, to “Gothest girl I can”,  I knew I had to send them to Ungie.
 

Ruins 2

As readers may know, we are Forest Service “Guardians” to a little pre and post- Columbian (400- 1700?) pueblo near town. Mostly we just visit and document any changes, whether caused by natural erosion or “intruders” from kangaroo and pack rats to blundering cows and teenaged Navajo partiers. Today we joined FS Archaeologist Matt Basham to document some damage, but also to photo some post- colonial influences in the form of crosses of two datable types.

The cow damage had been inadvertent; the rancher there is conscientious, but a young cowboy from Alamo working for him had brainlessly put a 250 pound salt block ON a prehistoric stone structure, making cows trample the wall and pottery shards into pieces too small to identify, and also attracting passing cows and tempting them to bed in the ruin and trample and break more. Luckily unlike deliberate vandalism or looting it is easy to fix. Some shots:

Photographing the crosses was more fun. The pueblo tried to remain neutral in the Pueblo Revolt, and kept trading with the Spanish. The first two are simple; the third is a more ornate type known variously (and confusingly?) as both a Franciscan and a conquistador’s cross. As always, right and/ or double click to embiggen.

The kiva looks like a mere depression but then it is a lot older. Later I will post a remote sensing shot that shows the walls, underground.

“But it doesn’t snow in the southwest!”

Actually said to me a few years ago by a New Jersey Nuevo, in July. As the property he bought was on a dirt road at 7500 feet in Catron county, where the winters can be positively Montanan, I knew he was in for a surprise…

The illusion remains. I was idly watching morning TV the other day as I worked out on a treadmill at a neighbor’s house (just got my own, where I can READ, better for my brain) when the dizzy network blonde protested as she watched an ongoing blizzard in cold Flagstaff: “But isn’t it, like, perpetual summer there?”

Like, well, no. But we have been in the depths of a long drought and the last eighteen months before it broke were particularly bad. Now we seem to have returned to the old (pre- 1988) order of weekly snow, cause for rejoicing.

That said, it can get damn cold in an ancient rock house. We are properly grateful once again for the Vermont Castings wood stove from Paul Domski (seen recently below flying his Gos), and a good load of wood from Mac Leyba. (A stack of wood is so mentally and esthetically comforting I always take photos!)


“Mesabi”

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…

Gallo…

… 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…)