Tom Russell - Biography
By J Poet
Tom Russell is a noir cowboy with a voice that can whisper like the dust blowing down a deserted circus midway or growl like a wolf snapping at the unobtainable moon. He may not be well know by the American mainstream, but he’s songwriter’s songwriter and has had his tunes covered by artists like
Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Doug Sahm, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely and Ian Tyson and is credited as one of the forefathers of the Americana genre.
Russell started playing music and writing songs relatively late in life, and like a character in one of his songs, Russell started his career at the bottom. “My brother had a gut string guitar and played cowboys songs on it,” Russell said in a recent interview “I’d sneak off with it and play them too, ‘cause I loved the stories, but I was too shy to play in public. Instead, I got a Masters Degree in Criminology (from UCLA), but when I met the people I’d be standing around the water cooler with for the rest of my life, I knew it wasn’t for me. Hearing Dylan sing ‘Desolation Row’ at the Hollywood Bowl is still the high point of my life.” Russell moved to Africa to teach school, lived a while in Spain, then relocated to Vancouver, B.C. to make music. He put together a band and started playing in the strip bars and honky tonks on skid row, six to eight hours of cover tunes a night, six nights a week.
Tiring of that grind, he relocated to Texas and started performing as a duo with Patricia Hardin. They rode a circus train to research circus songs and get to know clowns and little people. They cut two albums King of Bone (1976) and Wax Museum (1978) reissued as Tom Russell & Patricia Hardin: The Early Years 1975-1979 on the British Edsel label in 1994. After that partnership dissolved, Russell moved to New York City and became a taxi driver. He picked up two life-changing fares as a cabbie: Andrew Hardin (no relation to Patricia) who play guitar with Russell for almost 25 years and Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist, who made Russell his regular opening act for several years.
Russell’s skid row education colors his music, 20 albums that champion society’s hidden underbelly, the shadow world populated by under-employed dreamers, broken hearted schemers, gamblers, junkies and other lost souls wondering why their dream of a better life never came true. His first album under his own name was Road to Bayamon (1988, Philo) credited to Tom Russell Band, and released on his own Dark Angel label before it was picked up by Philo, Rounder’s singer/songwriter division. The album was Americana before the genre was invented a blend of rock, folk, country, blues and Tex/Mex that still informs his work today. It’s bleak vision of America’s underclass delivered in Russell’s sometimes harsh croak, wowed critics and created the template for the rest of Russell’s work, hard scrabble tales of the underdog set to understated folk like melodies.
Poor Man’s Dream (1990, Philo), one of his strongest albums ever, Cowboy Real (1991, Philo) songs about the cowboy myth featuring two songs co-written with Ian Tyson (Ian & Sylvia), Hurricane Season (1991, Philo), a hard rocking album filled with tunes Russell still performs and Box of Visions (1992, Philo), all added to Russell’s reputation as both an outsider and first class songwriter.
In 1995 he signed with Oakland’s HighTone Records and since then he’s continued delivering genre-busting albums. The Rose of San Joaquin (1995, HighTone) is a warts and all portrait of a Mexican border town. The Man from God Knows Where (1999, HighTone) has been hailed as a classic since its release, an epic song cycle of immigrants looking for, finding and loosing the American Dream with guest shots by pals like Iris Dement and Dave Van Ronk. Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs (2004, HighTone) is another cowboy album that alternates between Russell’s tumbleweed dusted originals and tunes by Marty Robbins, Dylan, Peter Lafarge and Woody Guthrie.
Hotwalker (2005, HighTone) is another masterpiece, but it’s a hard listen. Subtitled Charles Bukowski and a Ballad For Gone America, the album combines spoken word narrative, poetry, music and sound collages to recreate the feel of the Los Angeles underground of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. With contributions from Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Little Jack Horton, a little person who rants like a possessed carnival barker, the album sounds like a ‘40s radio drama. In interviews Russell has described it as a love poem to the blue collar America of sideshow freaks, hard working men and women and the unique rural cultures that are slowly getting Wal-Marted out of existence.
Russell’s Love and Fear (2006, HighTone) and Wounded Heart of America (2007, HighTone) returned to his more conventional singer/songwriter mode with strong performances that again dig into the dark heart of modern American life.
Russell is also a published author and a painter with a growing reputation. His books include And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks (1996, Arsenal Pulp Press) a compilation of songwriters talking about songwriting put together with Sylvia Tyson, a novel Riding with the Magi (2004, Livingston Press) and Tough Company (2008, Mystery Island) short stories, poems and reminiscences of Russell’s friendship with poet Charles Bukowski. Russell’s paintings have been exhibited at the Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery in Austin, Texas. Russell also co-produces concert trains rides across Canada and Mexico with promoter Charlie Hunter called Roots on the Rails.