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Friday, January 14, 2011

Tom Russell

The Show was over and Julie and I stepped outside the Treehouse Café for a smoke in the cool, crisp air of the Olympic Peninsula while we waited for the crowd to thin out. Tom Russell had put on a performance that was everything we had anticipated…, and more. Back inside, there I was with five of Tom’s CD’s in hand, standing in what was then a short line, to get them autographed by him…, and wondering what I should say…, besides, “Thank you,”?

It had been about a year since I had “discovered” Tom’s extraordinary songwriting and musical abilities. I had read a piece of his writing, posted on The Agonist Blog, which was linked from Tom’s own “Notes From the Borderland” blog. Intrigued by that piece, I began to read his other posts on his blog. They went back in time a bit, and many of them were about the songs from his newly released CD, “Blood and Candle Smoke”. I don’t buy…, or even listen to…, any “new” music these days. The old chain saw, rock concert, barroom boogie days have left these old ears of mine ravaged to a degree that if I don’t already know the words to a song, I can barely discern them. But based on Tom’s writing I decided to take a chance and bought “Blood and Candle Smoke” and “Veteran’s Day – The Tom Russell Anthology”. It had been almost 20 years since a new artist’s work had graced my collection. I wish I could say that it was worth the wait…, but what I really wish…, is that I had discovered Tom 40 years and 25 albums ago.

To say that I was blown away by his talent and ability would be the understatement of this geological epoch. I had never made the change over to CD’s from old vinyl albums. Luckily, the Toyota and the computer came equipped with CD players. Julie thought maybe I was due for a mental health evaluation when I began to spend all my free time in my “office” as opposed to spending it out in The Saddle Bar(n). I couldn’t listen to Tom out in The Bar…, all I had was an FM tuner out there. Yeah…, I was a bit obsessed. With good reason.

Music has always been about the lyrics for me. Beethoven or Bach need not apply. Give me Browne or Buffett. Even back in the high school days, my friends and I were always trying to figure out the deep meaning of songs and decipher their cryptic little messages that seemed out of place and contrived. Then in later years I gave it the old college try again and took a creative writing course under the widely acclaimed poet, Robert Wrigley…, a bit before his acclaim. Even in the new poetry form that is not constricted by rhyme or meter, Bob would often say of a poem that the author “took the easy way out”. He meant that the author had something really good going, but failed to deliver the punch line, by using an old cliché or a standard statement. Or that the author used a meaningless phrase…, in the hope that it would be interpreted as a highly ambiguous, secret little message. In songwriting it is especially tempting to slip in a little something that isn’t really necessary or doesn’t add anything meaningful to the song just to make it end on the right beat. Even Dylan did it. Dave Van Ronk once said that, “Dylan has a lot to answer for there, because after a while he discovered that he could get away with anything—he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith.” If Tom Russell ever did that…, I haven’t found it. I admit that I have a lot of his music left to discover. But I have a distinct feeling that I will never find him “taking the easy way out”. Every one of his songs that I am familiar with is so carefully crafted that it is tempting to call them masterpieces. What the hell…, I have never been one to shy away from temptation…, I will call them masterpieces.

The “Veterans Day” anthology is a two disc set of 37 songs that follow the chronology of Tom’s career from 1976 to 2008. It comes with a little booklet written by music journalist and broadcaster Mike Regenstreif. Mike gives a brief description of each song and tells which one of Tom’s albums it is off of. Mike calls Tom Russell, “The best singer-songwriter of my generation.” On the basic level Tom is a storyteller, and he has an excellent ear for a good story. But his genius lays in the way he crafts the words and images into telling that story. I will try here to provide you with a taste of the sheer genius of Tom Russell’s song writing by quoting some lyrics from some of the songs. I wish I could quote them all here.


Said my name is Nakashima, and I’m a proud American
I came here in ’27, from my homeland of Japan
And I picked your grapes and oranges, I saved some money, I bought a store
Until nineteen forty two, Pearl Harbor and the War

Came those relocation orders, they took our house, the store, the car
And they drove us through the desert, to a place called Manzanar
The Spanish word for apple orchard, though we saw no apple trees
Just a row of prison barracks, with barbed wire boundry

And we’d dream of apple blossoms, waving free beneath the stars
Till we’d wake up in the desert, the prisoners of Manzanar... Manzanar

Fifty years have all but vanished and now I am an old man
But I don’t regret the day that I came here from Japan
But on moonlit winter nights, I often wish upon a star
That I’d forget the shame and sorrow that I felt at Manzanar

And we’d dream of apple blossoms, waving free beneath the stars
Till we’d wake up in the desert, the prisoners of Manzanar
And we’d dream of apple blossoms, waving free beneath the stars
Till we’d wake up in the desert, brave prisoners of Manzanar

“California Snow” (cowritten with Dave Alvin)

I’m just trying to earn a livin’, I’m an old man at thirty-nine
My two kids and my ex-wife, moved up to Riverside
I’m an agent on the border, I drive the back roads late at night
The mountains east of El Cajon, north of the Tecate line
Where the California summer sun will burn right through your soul
But in the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow

I catch the ones I’m able to, I watch the others slip away
And some I know their faces, I might even know their names
I guess they think that we’re all movie stars and millionaires
I guess they think their dreams and hopes will all come true up here

But I bet the weather’s warmer, way down in Mexico
And no one ever warned them, about the California snow

Last winter I found a man and wife and it was just about daybreak
Layin’ in a frozen ditch north of the interstate
I wrapped ‘em in a blanket, Lord but she’d already died
We shipped the man on back alone, south of the borderline

I don’t know where they came from or where they’d hoped to go
But he carried her body all night long, through the California snow

Man, the things I’ve seen up here, make me think about my life
I might go back to Riverside, try to fix things with my wife
Or maybe I’ll just get in the truck, and drive as far as I can go
Away from all these ghosts that haunt, the California snow

And the California summer sun will burn right through your soul
But in the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow
In the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow.

“The Pugilist at 59”

Rolled out of bed, threw some water on my face
Twenty-five sit-ups and I run in place
I put the coffee on but the pot ain’t clean
Yeah, all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine

A handful of vitamins, drop them on the floor
My ex-girlfriends’ are laughin’ from the icebox door
I put their photos up there, yeah, we talk all the time
But they ain’t talkin’ back now, the pugilist is 59

Cold chicken salad, a glass of iced tea
Phone bills, gas bills, electricity
And the mortgage and the junk mail, one old Father’s Day card
Yeah, go sweat it out, kid, it’s 108 in the yard

Water the lawn, trim them old trees
Pray that your gut don’t fall down to your knees
And Archie Moore whispers in your ear: “Get up, kid, you’re in your prime”
Nah, nah, the champ’s on the ropes Arch, the pugilist is 59

And the rock and the roll
And the fight for your soul goes on and on
You put on the gloves
You’re always ready for love
Pray your passion ain’t used up and gone, yeah
The harder we love, the harder we fall

It’s cauliflower hearts and old medicine balls
And back street affairs in all the water tank towns
Well, there’s a mighty thin line between a heavyweight champ and a used up old clown
But this is Hollywood, kid, fear strikes out
Miracles turn around one-sided bouts

Get off the floor, kid, the sweet science of them old romantic lines
Hey, the champs comin’ back, boys, the pugilist is 59

And the rock and the roll
And the fight for your soul goes on and on
You put on the gloves
You’re always ready for love
Pray your passion ain’t used up and gone, yeah
Roll out of bed, water on your face
Twenty-five sit-ups - run in place
You put the coffee on but the pot ain’t clean
I said, all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine
Yeah, all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine
I said, all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine

The songs on “Blood and Candle Smoke”, released in 2009, show that Tom is continuing to expand his horizons and not resting on any tried and true formula for his success. After listening to this one, I was able to jettison those musings I had, that maybe the “Veteran’s Day” cuts were the only good songs on his old albums. Here are some lyrics from a few songs off “Blood and Candle Smoke”.

“East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam”

I slept through the 1960’s
I heard Dory Previn say
Me I caught the great white bird
To the shores of Africay
Where I lost my adolescent heart
To the sound of a talking drum
East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

On the roads outside Oshogbo
I fell down on my knees
There were female spirits in old mud huts
Iron bells ringing up in the trees
And an 80 year-old white priestess
She made juju all night long
East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

Raise high the roof beams carpenter boy
We’re comin’ through the rye
In the cinema I watched the man walk the moon
And I laughed so had I cried
And it was somewhere in those rainy seasons
That I learned to carve my song
East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

Africa, Mother Africa
You lay heavy on my breath
You old cradle of civilization
Heart of Darkness, blood and death
But we had to flee you runnin’ scared
When the crocodile ate the sun
East of Woodstock,West of Viet Nam

I think it’s gonna rain tonight
I can smell it comin’ off the sage
As I sit here readin’ ole Graham Green
I taste Africa on every page
And I see those red clay roads
At sundown, and boys I’m gone
East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

Rise high the roof beams, carpenter boy
Yeah we’re comin’ through the rye
It was a movable feast of war and memory
A dark old lullaby
It was the smoke of a thousand cook fires
It was the wrong end of a gun
East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

“American Rivers”

I saw Red Iron Sunsets from a Rust-Iron Bridge
In the Indian Countries of the Mockingbird Kid
I saw the moon in a boxcar, carried as freight
Through sixty-two winters and forty-eight states

In an old Chinese Graveyard, I slept in the weeds
When a song and a story were all a kid needs
Yeah, the rhymes and the rattle of those runaway trains
And the songs of the cowboys, and sound of the rain

And it's mama I miss you, I woke up and screamed
American rivers roll deep through my dreams

Colorado, Allegheny
Shenandoah, Sus-qua-hay-nee
And the Wabash, the Hudson, the brave Rio Grande
I was the kid there, asleep in the sand, near your Waters

We named 'em for Indians, our guilt to forsake
The Delaware, the Blackfoot, the Flathead, the Snake
Now they roll past casinos and old hamburger stands
They are waving farewell to the kid on the land

With their jigsawed old arteries so clogged and defiled
No open-heart miracle will turn 'em back wild
Past towns gone to bankers; past fields gone to seed
All cut up and carved out; so divided by greed

And old grandfather Cat Fish with whiskers so long
And his life in a struggle, 'cause the oxygen's gone
Oh, mama I miss you, I woke up and I screamed
The American rivers, they've poisoned my dreams...

“The Most Dangerous Woman in America”

Three weeks out of prison, he drives the cold Missouri night
Strip malls and abandoned mines out on the left and the right
He drives into Mr. Olive and the Becker Funeral Home
Where his daddy’s lying’ with a cold hard stare
Black lung and broken bones

The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Is buried on the edge of town
Look out, ma, another miner’s goin’ down

It’s darker than a dungeon down in those abandoned mines
He’s drunk in the House of Knowledge
Plays “Sixteen Tons” a thousand times
It’s colder than a witch’s tit
When the wind blows through these streets
Old minin’ men in the Legion Bar, they’re starin at their feet

The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Is buried on the edge of town
Look out, ma, another miner’s goin’ down

The wind blows through the empty rooms of a corporation farm
There’s a little blue man on the kitchen floor
Shootin’ sparks into his arm
Three-car funeral rollin’ by out on the county line
“Bye-bye, daddy, you’re heaven-bound, but right now so am I”

The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Is buried on the edge of town
Next to the grave where they laid his daddy down

That night in The House of Knowledge, he buys him a .38
And drives out to the Discount Liquor store on the Interstate

The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Has a tear froze in her eye
For the sons and daughters of minin’ men
Who’ve lost their way tonight

Bullets fly and one man dies and one drives off along
To the cemetery midnight and the grave of Mother Jones
He whispers low his daddy’s name and then
“Mother I’ve come to pray... and pay
“For all you done for the minim’ men back in the violent days”

The Most Dangerous Woman inAmerica
Smiles deep in the frozen ground
And there’s sirens comin’ through a dead-end minin’ town

The Most Dangerous Woman inAmerica
Is buried on the edge of town
Look out, ma, another man is goin’ down.

For almost a year solid I listened to Tom Russell exclusively. Well…, OK…, I didn’t swear off The Saddle Bar(n) completely. And I didn’t have a CD player out there…, so I listened to some classic rock on the weekends. But it was Tom Russell CD’s shuffling through the Toyota every weekday morning and evening on the road to the job. That is…, until I found the missing tape of an old musician friend that had passed away in 2008. That find blew me away in another direction entirely. And I was still working that out when, on Christmas Eve, I discovered that Tom Russell was going to be playing at the Treehouse Café on Bainbridge Island on February 9, 2011. I immediately secured a reserved table for two…, and started counting down the days. I had been watching the website, and knew that Tom was doing a show in Seattle on 2/10/11. But me and big cities don’t get along well. And I have an absolutely perfect record of getting lost in Seattle every single time I have ventured off the freeway there. I didn’t want to risk breaking that streak. The next closest venues were in Vancouver, BC or Portland, OR. A show on The Peninsula was a Christmas gift extraordinaire.

I was a bit curious about why Santa was treating me so good when I received confirmation that the reservations were secured…, but I was downright suspicious of his motives when we were shown to our table at the Treehouse Cafe. Julie and I had intentionally arrived almost two hours before the start of the show. We wanted plenty of time to have a couple of beers, go out to smoke (WA law), eat dinner before the show started, go out to smoke…, and make sure we got a good table. We needn’t have worried about the table. They had been reserved from front to back in order of reservation. Ours couldn’t have been any more perfect.., front row, not 10 feet from a one foot high stage, but off center, against a walk-around partition on one side and a waitress alley on the other side of us. No other patrons to bump elbows with. And it was standing room only in a room that couldn’t have held 100 people. It just couldn’t have been any better…, unless Tom was playing The Saddle Bar(n)…, Santa?

Tom has been doing this for a long time and it shows. He knows how to draw out the best in an audience and he gives his best in return. He sounded great…, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention the greatness of his only accompanist…, Thad Beckman on the acoustic guitar. But the show was over now and I was standing in line with five CD’s in my hand. I had purchased three from Tom’s beautiful wife Nadine before the show. I asked if he would autograph them for me and she said, “Yes, after the show.” I asked if he would autograph the ones I had in the Toyota too. She said, “Of course.” So there I was, trying to think of something witty or funny to say. Words may seem to come easy to me here on the page…, but Julie will tell you…, I’m not much of a talker. I’m not sure how it came out, but as he was autographing the CD’s I tried to tell him how much his music meant to me, and how I had lost a very close musician friend a couple years back, and how he had helped fill a hell of hole in my life. I tried to tell him that I had taken a creative writing course at one point in my life and the instructor had pointed out how many writers “take the easy way out” in their writing instead of doing the hard work to get it right. I said that even Dylan was guilty of it at times. I told him that I had never seen him do that. He looked at me, handed me back the CD’s, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you…, that really means a lot to me.”

As I was walking out of the Treehouse Café I thought, “I suppose he says that to everyone who tries to pay him a compliment.” But here, about a month later in The Saddle Bar(n) with a new CD player, and more of his music in my mind and on my shelf…, I think, “He really meant it.” Tom Russell isn’t the kind of guy who would ever take the easy way out.


  1. I'm glad there are people coming late to the party. Most of the time they don't get there at all. I've been listening to and writing about Tom for a good part of my career and I felt like I came late. But as Russell himself notes in one of his posts on his own blog, there's no such thing as coming late to great art. I'm thrilled there are more people showing up these past ten years, and that Russell's willing to put himself out there in a way he hasn't in the past--not to mention the consistently fine work. Between his and Ray Wylie Hubbard's and Steve Young's songs, there's an entire America most folks don't know about at all. -- Thom Jurek

  2. Thanks Thom..., I certainly hope that Tom receives the wider audience he deserves. I checked out your link and it was nice to see a professional review of "Blood and Candle Smoke". I will be searching out more of your work as well. For now..., I hope all of the folks reading here will check it out too.

  3. I got turned on to Tom three or four years ago when I discovered he'd co-written California Snow with Dave Alvin and that he'd written Blue Wing on of my favorite "Dave Alvin Songs" I've seen him three times since then, and I just really love his music.