Knocking on History’s Door with Singer-Songwriter Tom Russell

With his larger than life baritone and rustic intelligentsia style, Tom is the kind of astute writer who can dig deep into lore, history, and popular culture effortlessly. Whether spinning songs about Navajo rugs, the Seine River, Nina Simone, Africa, or bygone Hollywood, Russell is a distinct brand of songwriter with few peers. Sometimes hard-bitten, sometimes softly sentimental, sometimes sardonic as hell, Russell mixes his past and present – sociology graduate, teacher, cab driver, writer, and painter – into a storehouse of song that some critics have likened to a melding of Howard Zinn and Walt Whitman. He took time while spending his summer in Switzerland to discuss his newest efforts.

Not long ago, you heard from Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, who prodded you down this path over two decades ago. Did that mean more to you than a dozen generous music reviews?

Of course. Robert Hunter is one person in this business who really laid it on the line for me when I was a New York cab driver back in the ’80s. I picked him up late one night and sang him a song. He loved it. A few days later he got me up on stage and handed me his guitar and split. I’ve been on the road ever since. Never saw him again, until I heard from him about my last record, Blood and Candle Smoke.” He dug it. Said some very nice things. You don’t get that kind of honesty anymore. He’s the real deal. He co-wrote a lot of songs on the last Dylan record. Robert is always on the frontlines of modern song.

The new album feels in line with Blood and Candle Smoke, your best selling album to date, even in time when record stores have bitten the dust in many places. Dave Alvin once told me that records sell when all wheels are moving – reviews, radio slots, gigs, label attention, etc.

We’ve got a great record label, Shout! Factory, and a strong machine behind us. But the bottom line now is songs. I feel a full record of well-written songs is a revolutionary act in these days. That sort of collection will stand out in the era of single song downloading. We also tour all over the world and have a good profile in England, and much of the best music press and radio now comes out of the UK. You’re talking magazines like Mojo UNCUT, Word, and the programs on the BBC. If the whole package is together and you can perform well, then you can sell records in Oslo or Hell or the Galapagos Islands.

Does your audience propel that success, or is it luck?

I always look beyond any idea of an audience. I’m glad I have one, but I’d always like to reach out to new folks. I think people are desperate to hear a good song. Well sung. I think hard work is more important than luck. If you keep the shows fresh and try and reach new frontiers in your writing, your audience will grow.

Your eye for sociology has never dimmed. Even when doing folk-operas, as The Man from God Knows Where was dubbed, or recently examining the maverick actor Sterling Hayden, you seem to measure people’s worth on a different scale than most, with a tenderness for the outsiders and outcasted. Why?

Because I’ve always felt on the outside, looking in. I never felt comfortable in a group. Maybe that’s why I got a degree in Criminology, to find out why I felt so weird in this society. So, I might be drawn to stories about people way out beyond the margins. I think societies are changed by outsider artists like Van Gogh and Bob Dylan. When Dylan got up in front of a bunch old liberal people in 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, and said there was something about Lee Harvey Oswald he identified with, well the square liberals freaked. I know what Dylan meant.

He identified strongly with the feeling of someone who was so hung up and outside he didn’t know what to do about it. I’m not saying (and I’m sure Dylan wasn’t) that you have to assassinate anyone. It’s just a feeling of not fitting in. There’s a lot of outsiders on this new record. Especially Hollywood people and cartel soldiers in Juarez.

David Letterman has been a strong supporter of singer-songwriters like you, Warren Zevon, and Nanci Griffith. Do you think his audience, still 15 million, turns out for your shows, buys your music — do those limelight moments hold sway even in the current fragmented media world?

David has certainly been supportive. I’m sure those appearances have sold me a lot more records. I’ve sang a few radical songs on that show, like “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” about the Mexican border wall. That always gets reaction and a strong shot of sales on Amazon. On the other hand, I don’t think it brings a huge amount of people out to the shows. Some people don’t get up off the couch for live music. We were on the show last time right after he had revealed some guy was blackmailing him. So, the audience was even bigger than usual.

Borderlands and Mexico are a constant theme in your work, like in “Goodnight, Juarez” and “And God Created Border Towns”, but savoring the culture has turned to dismay now too, since the “children disappear or hide underground” and the bullring is torn down as meth and men in masks roam. As you’ve witnessed the shift, what grieves you the most, and what seems to persevere there, despite the tumult?

The border is eternal. I grew up with it in L.A. and I live on it now near Juarez. It bothers me that I can’t walk over that bridge now and hang out and hear the mariachis. What prevails is that deep history which influences our culture, particularly the culture of the American West, from the Spanish conquistadors back to The Moors. The music also endures and carries with it the folklore and myth, but also the current news carried in the drug corridos.

The Yarddog Gallery in Austin, who also handles folks from The Silos and the Mekons, shows your paintings. You describe them as primitive, since you are a colorist and fast painter. How has painting shaded or shaped, if at all, your sense of songwriting recently?

I’ve always said there’s a deep affinity between songwriting and painting. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but a song is similar to a painting. You can visit the artwork or the song again and again and get something new out of it. The act of painting is a lot like songwriting. Some days you’re doing hack work, and the next day you hit the ball out of the park. If you keep at the process it leads somewhere. There’s a book of my art coming this fall on Bangtail Press, Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell. I have a long essay on art in there that I’m proud of.

Your longtime love of John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin and others, is well-noted, but you are not a huge fan of young songwriters. What does Leonard Cohen, who kept you spellbound for hours during his comeback, have that the younger folks seem to lack?

Deep character and passionate, heartfelt songs that resonate. I think younger writers are writing soundscapes these days, more than songs. That’s cool. I listened to a lot of new music before I made the last record and the band Calexico really stood out. They play on my current record, as well. But I have a hard time finding new writers that knock me out. I’m sure they’re out there. It’s easy to become an old fart and criticize new writing…like your parents saying The Beatles sucked and Sinatra would last forever. Both sides turned out to be right.

I just want to hear a song that makes me pull my truck over to the side of the road and listen, and then shiver. I’m ready. I need a list.

A bit of sentimental love pervades on tracks like “Heart within a Heart” and “Love Abides” (a narrative with your daughter), replete with falling stars, morning frost, and Rio Grande souls. Are such tender sentiments important as you tackle topical fare? Even Bob Dylan wore his heart on his sleeve.

I think each of my albums has to have a song or two about love and hope. A turning point before you head back into the dark stories. “Heart Within a Heart” is sort of a Gnostic Gospel trip of digging deeper into your soul when times get bad. Regina McCrary, who sang gospel songs with Dylan for many years, sings on it. “Love Abides” ends the record. Just me and the guitar. A resolution of sorts. We all have to cross our burning deserts, but love will get us through. Carry water, though. And a pocket knife.

Your sense of history, especially on tracks like “Mesabi”, includes a vital recognition of interwoven American diversity: polkas, Ritchie Valens, and Howlin’ Wolf. Do you feel the 21st century offers the same hybridity, the same sense of connection?

Not as much. But with the Internet and our own imagination, and healthy thirst for digging down into the roots of music and culture, we can still discover new art. I’ve gone back and rediscovered some odd corners of jazz and flamenco, like the singing of the great Camaron de La Isla. His singing is a deep as it might get. I need to hear music like this when I paint. But the one problem with younger writers now might be they don’t have the sense of firsthand knowledge of our musical folk and blues and jazz heritage that people like Dylan had. The guy must have known five thousand songs before he hit New York. And then you draw on that and build your own catalogue.

How much of you is still that football playing, Catholic, troubador boy-to-be in Hollywood Park, the nephew of Uncle George, who played the Star Spangled Banner for the Martin Luther King rally?

That’s still me. You never get rid of that stuff. I grew up playing football in Catholic school and hanging out on the backside of Hollywood Park Racetrack, where my old man played poker every morning with Hopalong Cassidy. And I could sit and listen to my Uncle George Malloy play piano for hours. He was the real deal. We have a new documentary coming out called Don’t Look Down, that has some great footage of my Uncle George playing piano behind the jazz harmonica player Larry Adler. Very cool. It’s available on Tom or Village