Tom Russell: American Songwriter | Sweeping Humanity into His Songwriting Embrace

Storyteller, songwriter, artist, and novelist, Tom Russell is a creative powerhouse.

I came late to the Tom Russell musical dinner. Although he has been writing and performing powerful songs for 35 years, I heard him first five years ago when he headlined the magical (then flooded, now missed) Ushers Ferry Folk Festival in Cedar Rapids. Storyteller, songwriter, artist, novelist … he holds nothing back, whether fronting a band on the Late Show with David Letterman (five times) or soloing at a book signing for his friend. I’ve experienced Tom at Café Paradiso coffeehouse in Fairfield, a church in Arizona, Knuckleheads Bar in Kansas City. Whatever the venue, within moments of his seasoned baritone settling on the audience, Tom has earned the respect of every heart in the room.

Southern California was where Tom was birthed—both bodily and musically. The mariachi bands and the FM radio from across the border, mixed with the musicals on the family stereo and musicians, comedians, and poets performing in LA, created a rich, embryonic stew. After a stint in Africa plying his degree in criminology, Russell began his musical journey at the corner of folk, rock, and country in Vancouver, then Texas, then California. After years of playing in rough bars and having his artistry unappreciated, he migrated to NYC. While driving a cab, he met Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, who encouraged Russell to follow his muse and share the stage with him.

Russell’s songs have been recorded by a diverse lot: Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, Ian Tyson, k.d. lang, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On his new album, Mesabi, Russell pays tribute to Bob Dylan by drawing parallels between Dylan’s birthplace in Minnesota’s desolate iron range and his own in Southern California. He calls on Lucinda Williams to deliver a riveting “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”

There is a literary quality that pervades Russell’s lyrics and characters. Whether famous or unknown (Liz Taylor or Ukulele Ike), family or fiction (his father or the preacher), his characters are believable and reveal some fragment of truth about both the singer and the listener. The new record features a number of songs about famous Hollywood performers who died alone and forgotten. I reckon this is Russell’s way of suggesting to put no stock in popular heroes and to live by our own lights.

Russell’s songs have for years celebrated the land, music, and people of the Mexican border—it’s world of bullfights and drug violence interwoven with the sweetness of family, a spiritual life that accepts Christ and the native gods, the earthy flavors of handmade tortillas and bacanora mescal. Within our lifetimes, that border has been open, allowing a free flow of ideas and people. It is now politicized, restricted, and embattled. There is no better voice for the diversity and intrigue of the border than Russell, who has lived in El Paso for over a decade. 

Russell has had signature songs throughout the decades: “Gallo del Ciello” in the ’70s (favorably critiqued by Dylan), “Outbound Plane” in the ’80s (big hit for Suzy Boguss), “The Rose of San Joaquin” in the ’90s, and “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall” in the ’00s (Folk Alliance song of the year). My candidate for his song of the new decade is “Heart Within a Heart,” a loving reflection from a character who has walked many hard miles and come to a warm, knowing place. My daughter and I heard Russell do this at a rehearsal a few months ago. When he finished, he said to us, “That should go pretty well in Fairfield.”

Tom Russell does have an Iowa connection. His Norwegian grandparents settled here. His father grew up a horse trader here before moving to the promised land of California. This family heritage is explored with rigorous fullness in his 1999 song cycle “The Man from God Knows Where.” The loneliness of the Midwest pioneer woman is achingly delivered by Iowa-based Iris Dement. Dave Van Ronk, and singers from Norway and Ireland, convey the roles of Russell’s ancestors.

There are few troubadours these days. When you consider the number who have an international following and who have been successful for four decades, the number is even fewer. When Tom Russell is in the neighborhood again, let him work his magic on your heart.     

Tom Russell performs at Café Paradiso in Fairfield on Sunday, October 2, 2011, at 7:45 p.m. 

Visit the index for more articles on music and musicians.