The title of Tom Russell’s new album, Mesabi, refers to the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota, one of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore, a cold, inhospitable place where hard people do hard work. But in Russell’s world, and that of many fans of modern music, the Mesabi Range and the nearby town of Hibbing stand for something very different, even mythical: as Russell puts it, that region is “the Bethlehem of the Troubadour Kid”, Robert Allan Zimmerman, or, as he later renamed himself, Bob Dylan.
Dylan is one subject of this compelling album’s title song; Russell himself is another. Supported by a rock solid backbeat and elegiac Tex-Mex trumpets, Russell draws universal parallels between Dylan’s upbringing in small-town Minnesota and his own in a Hispanic part of Los Angeles. He imagines Dylan sitting up late at night listening to Howlin’ Wolf on the radio, then remembers himself in the same position, playing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” on his Uncle George’s record player. He imagines both he and his hero went to sleep with the same prayer on their lips: “Please don’t make me do the work that my father did.”
Like Dylan, Russell got his wish: he got to “sing like the Troubadour Kid”. He recorded his first album in 1976, with then-partner Patricia Harden, and apart from a brief hiatus as a cabdriver in the early eighties, he’s been at it ever since. Along the way, heroes have been a constant subject: he’s written songs about William Faulkner, Jack Johnson, Bill Haley, Charles Bukowski, Dave Van Ronk, Nina Simone, and Mickey Mantle, among others. So it’s not surprising that heroes and legends are the central subjects of Mesabi, a sort of concept album about all the ways our dreams can let us down.
“I was that kid in a room, with heroes and legends tacked up over my head / Fullbacks and folk singers; matadors, troubadours and hard-running thoroughbreds,” he sings in the album’s second song, “When the Legends Die”. “Most of ’em are gone, but they fly around like legends in my unconscious mind / Ah, kid don’t cry, it’s just a cowboy’s lullaby / The songs will live, after the legends die.”
That, of course, is the songwriter’s lullaby, and his dream: that his songs will live long after his career — legendary like Dylan’s, or not — passes on. In the case of Russell, one tends to believe this dream (if not the grander dreams of fame and riches) will come true. On his last three albums — Love and Fear, Blood and Candle Smoke, and now Mesabi — Russell has come up with a late-career flurry that rivals what Dylan himself achieved with Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft”, and Modern Times. Like Dylan, Russell constructs his songs from the building blocks of classic American folk and blues traditions. But while his lyrics don’t reach the poetic heights of the master’s, Russell’s dedication to clarity and craftsmanship over linguistic flourishes make his best work equally satisfying.
After the universal sentiments of “When the Legends Die”, Russell gets down to cases. “Farewell, Never Never Land” looks at the tragic story of Bobby Driscoll, Disney child star, drug addict, and eventual overdose victim: “Some kids playing baseball in a vacant lot in New York City / Found a body lyin’ in the weeds…” In “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike”, the voice of Jiminy Cricket dies “penniless and forgotten / In the motion picture old folks home.” On “Sterling Hayden”, Russell recounts the actor’s appearance on the Tonight Show: “Yeah, I ratted on people during the McCarthy hearings / You haven’t the foggiest notion of the contempt I have for myself.”
Aside from fallen stars, Russell’s other interest on Mesabi — and a legend in its own right — is the El Paso-Juarez border area where he makes his home. In “And God Created Border Towns”, he laments the drug cartel wars that have shut down the border for all but the most foolhardy Americans: “Our guns go ‘cross the Rio Grande / Two thousand pieces every day / And the coke and weed and methamphetamine / Come sliding back the other way / Narcocorridos on Radio Canyon / Accordions cover up the deadly human sound / The devil talks in tongues of politics / And God created border towns.” The haunting “Goodnight, Juarez” echoes these sentiments: “Juarez, I used to paint the town / Now you’ve gone and turned it upside down / Into a dark and bloody battleground / Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight.”
Two tracks break the bleak mold of the rest of the album: the love songs “Heart within a Heart”, which separates the movie songs from the border songs, and “Love Abides”, which concludes the album on a hopeful note. Each is lovely in its own way, but they’re an odd fit here, sort of like if Pete Townshend and the Who took a break in the middle of Tommy to sing “Let My Love Open the Door”. But given the high quality of the material, it’s hard to begrudge Russell feeling the need for a couple of rays of sunshine to penetrate his dark vision.
After ending the album proper with the hopeful “Love Abides”, Russell goes back to where he began with the first of a pair of bonus tracks, a cover of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. Performed as a duet with Lucinda Williams, Russell takes Dylan’s apocalyptic warning and makes it even bleaker. Where Dylan’s delivery was a breathless call to action, Russell and Williams’ grim performance leaves no room for hope. The second bonus track, the title song to Monte Hellman’s soon-to-be-released movie Road to Nowhere, is a mid-tempo rocker that fits the tone, if not the subject, of the album. I, for one, am glad to have both of these songs, though those looking for a concise thematic package might consider them too much of a good thing.