Thursday, March 18, 2010
Tom Russell: Darkness Visible
Lately I've been listening to more folk/ roots music than anything else, and I've found four artists who speak more directly to me than the popular, maybe better-known performers do. I suppose it's partly a matter of age, because these four songwriters are closer to my 67 years than, say, Ben Harper or Ani Defranco or Whosit. All four are well-regarded here in the U.S. and highly praised in Europe. I've already written (here) about Dave Alvin, ex- of the great roots rock band the Blasters; and another of the four needs no publicity from me (hard-living, late- and still-lamented Townes Van Zandt), so I'll focus some attention on the remaining two, stubborn Westerner Tom Russell in this post and New Orleans r&b guitar master Chris Smither (sometime soon).
Russell has been at it since the mid-Sixties. In fact, a recent post on his personal blog talks about having an encounter with Bob Dylan back in '62 or so, and knowing then and there what he wanted to do with his life. His success came slowly, but by the early Eighties other performers were recording Tom's songs--Joe Ely, Nancy Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dave Alvin, Tom Paxton, and Johnny Cash all discovered his music. In the meantime he was recording for Philo and then Hightone, and nearly every album from those three decades is a gem. But a trio of his most recent releases provide a good summation and intro: Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology, a 2CD set on Shout Factory, sampling his best songs from those two defunct labels; One to the Heart, One to the Head, by Gretchen Peters, with Russell duetting and producing, on Scarlet Letter/Frontera Records (in 2008); and Tom's latest, 2009's Blood and Candle Smoke, also on Shout Factory.
There's a well-known Northwest poet named David Wagoner, who in his heyday seemed to find poems in everything: old shoes, getting lost in the woods, baseball games, croaking frogs... you name it and he'd write it. Russell has some of that world-embracing, eclectic, encyclopedic intelligence; his storytelling songs draw on the cowboy past and the confused present, historic happenstance and misterioso modern moments alike. So in the two-set you find wonderful originals devoted to Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar, the sad death of Bill Haley, Vietnam veterans, pre-Katrina Mississippi floods, careless horsethieves caught and hung, Little Willie John's cellmate, a handy Navajo rug, Mickey Mantle, fighting cocks in Mexico, Charles Bukowski, a border patrolman in California's unexpected snow, a statue in Lyon, France... and that's just a third of the 37 tracks on Veteran's Day.
Tom's fondness for high-energy folk-rock and chiming guitars (mostly courtesy of longtime pal Andrew Hardin), mariachi and Tex-Mex backgrounds, memorable images and muscular language, are all well represented, his past as amateur boxer, carney roustabout, sometime cowpuncher, and semi-pro adherent to the stripped-down style of Hemingway and Raymond Carver subtly present too. Listen to this 2CD set, and I'll bet you want more.
Gretchen Peters is a Nashville-based country singer/songwriter, but she grew up out in Colorado and a few years back she and Tom linked up somewhere, with Peters providing background vocals on some Russell tracks. And Tom was immediately convinced she should cut a modern Western album, which is how One to the Heart got recorded. The two put their heads together and assembled a terrific array of new and old Western songs with a suitably autumnal feeling and arrangements favoring piano, accordion, and cello more than guitars--Mary McCaslin's beautiful "Prairie in the Sky" and Rosalie Sorrels' proud farewell titled "My Last Go Round," the cowboy tune "Old Paint" and Dylan's border-flavored "Billy 4" (from his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Ian Tyson's sad and lonely "Blue Mountains of Mexico" and Nan O'Byrne's comically rowdy, not-precisely-cowboy original called "Sweet and Shiny Eyes."
Three others elevate the album beyond excellence to secure classic. Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' on Raton" receives a gorgeously simple guitar-and-piano arrangement, with Gretchen and Tom trading verses and harmonizing a slightly lengthened chorus, repeating the simple, hypnotic lines "Snowin' on Raton, Come mornin' I'll be through these hills and gone." Meanwhile, the puzzling title of Peters' album comes from a number (written by several women) which addresses directly and angrily male abuse of women; its title "If I Had a Gun" tells you that the later line "One to the heart, one to the head" comes with a snarl and a promise of violent revenge. A cowboy song? No, but a modern "murder ballad" for sure.
Finally, Russell provided a new song for Gretchen and himself to share, the wonderful, spirit-comforting original called "Guadalupe," depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine and miracle story of Juan Diego seen anew through the eyes of a troubled penitent, and sung first-person as if truly being experienced by Gretchen (or Tom, in harmony). The lines are haunting, questing, amazing. Here's a sample:
There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
High up in those ancient trees
And I have given up without a fight
Another blind fool on her knees...
She is reaching out her arms tonight
And, yes, my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again
From Guadalupe on her hill
And who am I to doubt these mysteries?
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here
But I am most in need of hope...
I have to admit that this beautiful song strikes a chord in me, the first time I've ever been made curious about Catholicism and saints and miracles. And the performance anchored Gretchen's CD so remarkably that when Tom released his own Blood and Candle Smoke a year later, he revisited their duet and picked an alternate track or shaped a different mix putting himself in the lead (making it the album's title source too). With Russell's wounded baritone throughout, a later verse takes on new meaning:
So here I am, your ragged disbeliever
Old doubting Thomas drowned in tears
As I watch your church sink through the earth
Like a heart worn down through fear...
But the earlier duet was a musical miracle not to be supplanted by his own doubt and guilt, however heartfelt.
Russell's songs are quite literate, even literary, sometimes more like short stories or spoken word recordings, as he cites in passing--or builds whole songs around--Mother Jones, Nina Simone, Hank Williams, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger, Graham Greene, Picasso and John Donne and Tennessee Williams. But this is not just namedropping; the references are usually surprising but apropos and add welcome depth--until his later CDs have come to seem chapters in some grand Encyclopedia of America, evoking Nature despoiled ("Santa Ana Wind" and "Mississippi River Runnin' Backwards"), his own wild past in Nigeria and Canada and Mexico as some strange code for U.S. meddling around the world ("Criminology" and "East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam"), and carnival craziness as greater metaphysical exemplar, found in "Darkness Visible" and "Don't Look Down," the latter including this packed verse:
Oh, the rhymes of the ranges,
And the kindness of strangers
I have run all the changes
Of the Chickasaw waltz
Tasted lipstick and nylons,
Seen your mental asylums
Turned my back on that violence,
Before I turned into salt...
Even the music this time roams farther, offering not just folk guitars and Tex-Mex excitement, but odd percussion and drifting arrangements involving members of the musical cooperative Calexico/Giant Sand (Joey Burns, John Covertino, and others) and ex-Box Top keyboards whiz Barry Walsh. Gretchen Peters adds harmonies as well.
I could blather on for several more paragraphs, but I'll skip to the chase--the remarkable track titled "American Rivers," which pretty much includes all the points about Russell's songs I tried to make earlier: personal remembrance, history and politics, pollution of Nature, satirical references, surprising tenderness. Let Tom's own words suggest his role in roots music:
In an old Chinese Graveyard, I slept in the weeds
When a song and a story were all a kid needs
Yeah, the rhymes and the rattle of those runaway trains
And the songs of the cowboys, and the sound of the rain
And it's mama I miss you, I woke up and screamed
American rivers roll deep through my dreams...
With their jigsawed old arteries so clogged and defiled
No open-heart miracle will turn 'em back wild
Past towns gone to bankers; past fields gone to seed
All cut up and carved out; so divided by greed
And old grandfather Cat Fish with whiskers so long
And his life in a struggle, 'cause the oxygen's gone
Oh, mama I miss you, I woke up and I screamed
The American rivers, they've poisoned my dreams
And the Wabash, the Hudson, the brave Rio Grande
I was a kid there, asleep in the sand, near your Waters...