As Tom Russell sees it, there are two types of borders: geographical and personal. The former is an arbitrary line on a map that divides the lands where people live; the latter is an arbitrary mental or emotional line that divides the people who live on the land. Known for his cowboy songs, Tex-Mex themes and historical storytelling, Russell narrows his focus here to the spaces between the characters in his songs, framing the results in the warmest, most sympathetic music of his career.
Russell has been touted mainly as a storyteller who happens to put his tales to music, and as such he’s in the company of people like Butch Hancock, Ian Tyson (with whom Russell has co-written songs), and Ray Wylie Hubbard. His characters tend toward the desperate, downtrodden, or just plain passed-by of this world, and there are a few new faces in the songs on Borderland.
There’s uncle Tommy of, “When Sinatra Played Juarez”, whose opinion of that town has gone south since Ol’ Blue Eyes came through in the Fifties, and Inez of the “Hills of Old Juarez,” which also name checks several historical figures like Pancho Villa in its updating of the “El Paso” outlaw myth, justifying criminal activity in the name of love.
Most of the album, however, is an extension of Russell’s excellent The Man From God Knows Where, which examined the Russell family history over the course of an entire album. Here, Russell continues that theme on “What Work Is”, which charts his own experiences in several odd jobs like “butter-spreader”, and he constructs many other songs in the first person, including the early Tom Waits feel of “Touch of Evil”, which references the Orson Welles film of the same name.
Musically, Russell has never sounded this good. Past efforts have been adequately arranged for the folk troubadour style he most affects, but this time around, producer Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams, Slaid Cleaves) has added just the right touches of guitar, bass, drums, and the occasional organ or accordion part to spice things up a bit, using accomplished session players like Ian McLagan (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and Joel Guzman (Los Lobos, Los Super Seven, Joe Ely).
Sometimes it is subtle, like the gentle accordion and soft acoustic of “Touch of Evil” that echoes the unforced intimacy of Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise”. Elsewhere, the band cranks things up a couple notches, as on the almost-rockabilly of “The Next Thing Smokin” (unsurprisingly, this one’s co-written with rockabilly queen Rosie Flores), and the closing anthem, “The Road Gives, The Road It Takes Away”, which deserves to become Russell’s sobering, yet rousing parallel theme to fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen’s popular “The Road Goes on Forever”.
The borderlands of the El Paso-Juarez frontier are a desolate, yet beautiful place, and these songs inspired by that terrain and the lives of those who live there are equally desolate, and equally beautiful.