Tom Russell‘s latest, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, is just what the wrapper reads: a musical overview of a time passed set in lovely harmonies and sparse musical accompaniment, a loving tribute to the Old West.
Russell has been in the music business for years, a singer songwriter of some acclaim whose songs have been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, and k.d. lang to Dave Alvin, Suzy Boggus, Iris Dement and Peter Case.
On Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, his 19th album, he returns to a place and time to which he feels a special connection. This connection is evident from the performances on the disc, which range from a surprisingly edgy reading of Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” to his own, Willie Nelson-esque “Tonight We Ride”, which opens the disc, and “Little Blue Horse”, which closes it.
The centerpiece of the disc is a surprisingly pure cover of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”, on which Russell alternates verses with Joe Ely and Eliza Gilkyson, a version stripped of the bile and viciousness that marks Dylan’s own reading of the song on Blood on the Tracks. In Dylan’s hands, the song is a venomous recounting of trickery and brutality set in the west, part of a larger pastiche of dishonesty and despair that is rock’s greatest divorce album. Stripped of that context, of Dylan’s cruel intonations and the album’s larger, darker hues, the power of the story itself is allowed to stand as it is. Gilkyson’s spiced soprano coated with the dust of the west and Ely’s bitten Texas drawl join Russell’s deep baritone in creating a spirited version of Dylan’s tale, regrounding it in its western milieu, Joel Guzman’s Garth Hudson-inspired Hammond organ swirling throughout lending a carnivalesque quality to the anarchic lyric.
While “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” stands out for its dark, surreal tone, the rest of the disc floats on a more straightforward poetry, the openness of Russell’s vocals, the fairly basic instrumentation (acoustic guitars strummed and picked, a Hammond Organ, Russell’s harmonica, a bass, fiddle, and Joel Guzman’s accordion) which makes these stories of Western towns and older days feel like more than the nostalgia trip they might at first appear.
The key to it all is Russell’s voice, one part Johnny Cash, another part Tom Paxton, a deep, resonating instrument that seems of another time. On “Bucking Horse Moon”, a tender love song about aging and loss, the ache of his vocal — “Sweet bird of youth / No easy keeper / Flown with the seasons / All too soon / Beneath Montana’s blue-roaned sky / Nevada skylight and the bucking horse moon” — cracks through above he simple acoustic guitar accompaniment.
An emotional rendition of Peter LaFarge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes” borrows from Johnny Cash’s definitive version, his baritone alternating between spoken word and song. Russell’s anger at the treatment of Hayes, a Native American and war hero who finds that he has no place in post-war American when he comes home from World War II, bubbles up as he bites off the lines during his reading and in the way he attacks the chorus: “Call him drunken Ira Hayes / He won’t answer anymore / Not the whiskey drinking Indian / Or the marine who went to war.”
There also is a surprisingly poignant paean to man’s best friend, “Old Blue” — a song that easily could have lapsed into a maudlin bit of pap, but is handled sensitively by Russell, with a reverence befitting a long relationship with an animal that obviously is more than just a pet — and a striking rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “East Texas Red” — the story of a rail yard bull who gets his comeuppance.
Ultimately, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs is that rare disc that recreates a time passed without sugarcoating it, without succumbing to nostalgia or romanticizing it. It also is an album that borrows from country, folk, and rock without being weighed down by any of them, floating out there in the realm where powerful storytelling lives.