As he discusses the state of contemporary music, the man who has been called “the greatest living country songwriter” sounds so annoyed that he practically groans entire sentences. “It’s like seeing a traffic accident,” he says grimly, speaking from his home in El Paso. “I hear different voices in the songs saying, This is important! This is the way we should think! This is a bad song! I want a record deal! If I’m anywhere near a river, crossing a bridge — I’m sorry, I pollute. I toss ’em out of the car. It’s like having bad art in your house.”
If this sounds to you like the mere kvetching of some dime-a-dozen cynic, then you don’t know Tom Russell. His work is among the most moving and literary of the past thirty years, an antidote to the recent trajectory of self-absorption in American singer-songwriting; self-centeredness that can be traced, approximately, to James Taylor’s famous early-’70s lullabies to himself. Ever since, the acoustic guitar has become the conch shell passed around the proverbial support group — if you catch someone holding a guitar, expect a self-reference any second. The hungry “I” has even beamed its way out of the neighborhood of singer-songwriting and into the general atmosphere of pop music, in which callow rappers melodramatize their own lives, and pseudofeminist popsters use the airwaves as their analyst’s couch.
The bulk of Russell’s songs, by contrast, have been narrative, rather than psychotherapeutic — they’re about things, rather than the singer’s precious inner life. They include story songs unlike any others, including those by the acknowledged best: Paul Simon, Shane MacGowan, and Bob Dylan among them. In Russell’s “Angel of Lyon” from 1992, a wealthy man becomes religiously obsessed with a past flame and ends up destitute, wandering the ground on which he’d met her — and the verses unfold into a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which are missing from so many songs that purport to tell stories. In “Big Water,” a family made homeless by the catastrophic Mississippi River floods of 1993 floats downstream in a “Sears and Roebuck canoe.” In his rich, sturdy baritone, Russell sings as the father, “I shouted ‘Mark Twain!’ as we rode through the levee, but no one shouted back at me.” Twain’s name, an alias, comes from a term shouted by crewmen on a riverboat to test water depth, but also evokes romance and adventure on the Mississippi. Russell, in this single line, invests his character with the kind of subtle irony and resignation it could take a hack writer an entire novel to attempt.
But Russell’s masterpiece may be one of his most understated songs: the stark, existential “Blue Wing,” sung from the perspective of a American Indian convict serving time as a cellmate with Little Willie John, the ’50s R&B singer who perished in prison. Just ask the Golden State’s songwriter laureate Dave Alvin — the song changed the course of his life. According to the Blasters’ founder, he’d moved to Nashville in 1989 to try to write commercial country songs when a friend loaned him a Russell tape led by “Blue Wing.” Alvin takes a breath before describing his reaction: “Blew my mind. I’d always tried to write character-driven songs,” he says, “and I put on my cassette and here were character-driven songs. And I was like, You know what? I’m on the wrong course here. It was about a week later that I booked a flight back to California. … If people are still playing folk music in a hundred years, or two hundred years, somebody in some little club somewhere, in a folk club in the fourth dimension, will do ‘Blue Wing.’ “
Anyone familiar with that song shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it actually is the work of a novelist, a profession that Russell pursued in New York in the ’70s, after touring and busking the world as a musician. “I had a deal with the William Morris agency and had about five manuscripts,” says Russell. “Nothing happened. But I think that approach of being a novelist or a short-story or fiction writer — and having some of those chops — really enhanced writing about other things and other people.”
Russell’s journalistic-novelistic approach has carried him through three decades of music that has been covered by an MVP list of country and roots singers, including Alvin, Johnny Cash, k.d. lang, Joe Ely, Iris DeMent, and Bob Neuwirth. And it has found its ultimate expression in 1999’s The Man from God Knows Where. The 26-track folk opera features vocals by DeMent, the late Dave Van Ronk, and Irish singer Dolores Keane, plus guitar work from virtuosic Russell sidekick Andrew Hardin. Ambitiously enough, it covers the past two hundred years or so of American history, through the lens of Russell’s own family history.
In preparation for the project, Russell threw himself into first-hand historical research with the skepticism you’d expect from someone offended by mediocrity. Among his discoveries: a deeper history of Ellis Island than the mainstream, sentimental version that seems to infuse not only novels, but historical texts. “Mary Clare Malloy,” interpreted on the record as a traditional Irish ballad from the perspective of Russell’s great-grandmother, is almost an ugly fraternal twin to Neil Diamond’s shallow golden-boy “Coming to America.” “We disembarked and stood in line with chalk marks on our coats,” lilts Keane. “It was X for mental illness, B if back on the boat.”
“We’re made to believe everybody had to come through there,” says Russell. “No. First- and second-class passengers were just cursorily checked by a doctor and they just walked into America. It’s unbelievable. And there were islands out there near Ellis Island where they took insane people.”
Like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, The Man from God Knows Where is jam-packed with characters. “Patrick Russell” is taken, nearly verbatim, from a single sheet of paper on which Russell’s great-grandfather dictated his immigration story before his death. In “Sitting Bull in Venice,” the great Hunkpapa Sioux chief-turned-sideshow makes a tragicomic reverse-migration to the old world with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. The final “character” to enter is Russell’s own father, a multitalented Hollywood businessman who also had a talent for both drinking and floundering between the extremes of good and ill fortune.
Sounds rather personal, doesn’t it? Russell’s latest, Borderland, indeed wades into the perilous water of introspection and autobiography. According to Russell, the time was as ripe as it was unpleasant. Since leaving Southern California in the early ’70s, he’d held residences in Vancouver, Austin, San Francisco, New York, and Oslo. As he began Borderland, he finally settled down with his girlfriend of eighteen years in El Paso — and that’s where the trouble started.
It certainly wasn’t the stark locale that turned him inward — characteristically, the champion observer found a treasure trove of stories in the landscape. “The history fascinated me,” Russell says. “Pancho Villa was all over this country, and a lot of gunfighters — including John Wesley Hardin — were killed downtown.” He cuts to the chase: “Then my relationship with this woman came into sharp focus and broke up and got really bloody. So I said, ‘This is what’s right in front of my eyes, this is what’s twisting me around.’ I started writing about that, and I’m really happy I did, because I got it out and it’s cathartic in a way.
“As somebody said — I think it was Carl Perkins — you run so far, eventually you’re gonna run into yourself,” he says, using a colorful reference point for the truest of clichés, as he does throughout Borderland. The opening “Touch of Evil” recounts with dark humor the dialogue between Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in the 1958 film of the same name, then launches a chorus that could be banal in another context: “Why don’t you touch me anymore?”
But it’s the hushed and lovely “Where the Dream Begins” that distills Russell’s own story into a single, profoundly personal gem of a couplet. The song avoids the first person altogether. Instead, it paints a solitary life at different stages, in a light diffused enough to seem merely allegorical. The “kid” starts to write songs and “The words fly away like swallows on the wind, but they never flew back to the nest again.” When Russell’s vocals rise to a weeping lilt, there’s no question who or what the song concerns, and that it’s a fate he feels he’s avoided by opening up his writing to his own voice.
In all likelihood, the facile, faceless songs that so irritate Russell will fly away into the purgatory that time reserves for bad art. But for as long as songs, as we know them, are sung, it’s hard to imagine that Russell’s won’t be.