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…”)
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…