Tom Russell: Blood and Candle Smoke

[19 October 2009]

By Rob Browning

Tom Russell is not your average contemporary Americana artist. To the best of my knowledge, neither Toby Keith nor Kenny Chesney maintains a degree in Criminology. Odds are also pretty good that neither of those clowns have taught anybody in Nigeria anything, either. For those of you scoring at home, Russell has done both and these attributes comprise but the tip of his artistic iceberg.

Cut from the same cloth as songwriting alchemists Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark, his evocative portraits of everyday life draw as much from Graham Greene as they do Johnny Cash. It’s small wonder that Nanci Griffith and Ian Tyson are but two of the many artists who have recorded his material over the years. While Blood and Candle Smoke marks the 25th record that Russell has released to date, his artistic endeavors have not remained confined to the songwriting idiom, encompassing such varied fare as painting, detective novels, songwriting compendiums, and a collection of letters exchanged with besotted Beat auteur Charles Bukowski. Suffice to say, Tom Russell has accomplished much in his 56 years

Blood and Candle Smoke finds Russell recording at Wave Lab Studios in Tucson, backed by studio proprietors Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico. Its songs draw from Russell’s wealth of life experience, with many concerning time spent in Africa in his youth. The months prior to the album’s release found Russell blogging exhaustively, annotating and embellishing his thoughts on each song’s gestation. Each of the 11 songs comprising Blood and Candle Smoke assert plainly that Russell shares both the learned ways of Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash as well as their three note vocal range. Dory Previn, Joan Didion, and Steven Foster are name-checked in the first two songs alone, backed by swaying 6/8 tempos and mariachi trumpets. Nostalgic remembrance of Picasso’s death while working at a logging camp and Hemingway allusions are dropped as anecdotally as they are unpretentiously, flying past like so many mental snapshots captured from a bus window.

Stylistically, Blood and Candle Smoke owes much to the stark beauty of Springsteen’s Nebraska and the more recent historically-driven Steve Earle fare. Literature and History assert as strong an influence as Art or Love. Nina Simone and Mother Jones are but two of the figures afforded homage: Simone in an eponymous track, and Mother Jones through “The Most Dangerous Woman in America”, wherein Russell shares a populist take on the tale of the guardian angel of the Mt. Olive Mines. Contending that the worst part about history is its recountance by staid, less than passionate historians, Russell conveys his message with the color and immediacy of his paintings.

The album’s final track is perhaps also the most poignant. Entitled “Darkness Visible”, the lyrics belie a strong influence of the William Styron memoir of the same name. Spiritually evoking fading lights on a carnival midway, the song’s protagonist searches in Indiana for a true love that may never be found; a quest that while dangerous and sadly not rife with reward, must be undertaken nonetheless. That drive encapsulates Tom Russell and his artistic and spiritual sensibilities nicely, a drive whose end result places Blood and Candle Smoke head and shoulders above the songwriting rabble of today.

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