Tom Russell:
An Authentic American Treasure

By Terry Roland

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Imagine if, over the last century, all of the great American literature went undiscovered, floundering in obscurity. Imagine how America would be today without the insights of Steinbeck, O'Conner, Faulkner, or Hemingway to portray and describe its character and its realities? It may well be argued that this is exactly what has happened with the American singer-songwriter. With perhaps one exception (and his initials are BD) some of the greatest creative minds have gone unrecognized by all but the most faithful fans. Hopefully, in the future, some generation will discover the canon of John Stewart, Townes Van Zandt, Janis Ian, Guy Clark, John Prine, Iris Dement, and, most certainly, Tom Russell.

Russell's music, his art, and his life are rooted deep in the heart of the real American experience that emerges from his songs and stories. Be it his fondness for tragic American biographies (Mickey Mantle), epic stories (Gallo del Cielo), or satiric political statements (Who's Gonna Build the Wall), Russell's insights and love for the American landscape and history shine through. The songs themselves are little pieces of full dimensions of life. In his career, Russell has never succumbed to the self-reflective, self-absorbed temptations and traps that taunt many singer-songwriters of his generation. His songs are always outside of himself. He is the author and the visionary; his medium is the place where the songs become our camera lens into another life. The tales are so colorfully vivid and close to the earth; if they're not true, the listener sometimes wishes they were. These are stories of the American West, of a man's memories of his lover and their Navajo rug, of desperate immigrants from south of the border, of the undersides of a city as seen through the poetic visions of Charles Bukowski, of the displaced and disenfranchised Japanese-Americans during World War II, relocated to a camp called Manzanar, and of the virtues of Canadian Whiskey.

Both in concert and in the studio, Russell has brought these images and visions alive - like walking through an exhibit of Andrew Wyeth or Ansel Adams. Russell's work has become not only about songs. He also has a great interest in American literature (on his website he lists Graham Greene as his current favorite author), he paints in his own unique southwestern style with a Woody Guthrie earthiness. He has also written a detective novel and even published a book of letters with Charles Bukowski. His vision has broadened into film. He has released a documentary on folk music and is in the process of completing a film called, California Bloodlines, of the same name as the classic John Stewart song, a songwriter from whom Russell has become an heir apparent.

Not only has Russell drawn from his influences, but he has also deepened the songwriter's vision and storytelling as a medium. In 1999, he recorded a landmark CD some have called a "folk opera." Titled The Man From Who Knows Where, it is certainly an episodic story brought together in song about the generations of his family, spanning back to his great grandfather in Norway. He recorded the CD there, near his ancestor's birth place. The follow-up to this cd is Hotwalker, based on his long correspondence with L.A. Beat poet, Charles Bukowski.

If having a distinctive, visionary songwriting career is not enough, Russell has had some fun putting together a U.S. to Canada music train tour complete with concerts and workshops. Russell also completed a 2005 documentary on this project of love called, Hearts on the Line.

The year 2007 found Russell weighing in on the immigration question. A native of Los Angeles, he now lives on what he calls a three-acre "badland" farm near the border of El Paso and Juarez. Over the last few years the government has discussed building a wall to help keep illegal immigration at a minimum. In response to this, Russell wrote a song called Who's Gonna Build Your Wall? The songs asks if all the illegals go home, who will build the wall to keep them out? This song can be found on the 2007 release, The Wounded Heart of America. Along with Wall. The CD is a unique compilation of artists Russell has collaborated with over the years. It's moving, if not a bit jarring, to hear the CD open with Johnny Cash singing Veteran's Day and then move along to Dave Van Ronk on The Outcast, Doug Sahm on Saint Olav's Gate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti on Stealing Electricity. Here you have what may be the finest collection of musical ghost artists to appear on one Americana CD.

In the long run, perhaps the stories that must be told about a passing and soon forgotten America, are best left covered in independent works like those of Tom Russell.

There may come a time when generations will wonder whether America, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, were about more than homogenized pop music, easy psychology, shallow new age religions, and corrupt politicians. As is the case today, when we listen to an artist like Tom Russell, they will find the true heartland of a wounded and weathered, but always hopeful America.

In 2008, independent label Hightone has released a career-spanning anthology CD called Veteran's Day that helps to summarize his own visionary pilgrim's progress up to now. But at age 55, he still has a long way to go, with many more songs to write and more stories to tell.

Tom Russell will be appearing at the following locations:

Acoustic Music Series in San Diego on November 28 at 7:30pm. For more information call 619-303-8176 or visit http://www.acousticmusicsandiego.com

McCabe's Guitar Store in Santa Monica on November 29 at 8:00pm For more information call 310-8284497 or visit http://www.mccabes.com/condata.html 

Thousand Oaks Library in Thousand Oaks on November 30 at 6:00pm. For more information call 818-621-8309 or email bodiehouse@aol.com 

Also, check the FolkWorks Pick of the Week. 


Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say 'dude' at an early age.