The CultureMap Interview
Riding the musical rails: Song man/anti-networker Tom Russell gets off the trainfor Houston
The storied career of singer-songwriter Tom Russell has taken him all over the world. Early on, somewhere between teaching school in Nigeria during the Biafran War and driving a New York cab, he played everywhere from a carnival in Puerto Rico to strip clubs in Vancouver.
Years later, his touring still criss-crosses the globe, but these days the venues are significantly more respectable. Before heading for Houston for two shows at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck this Saturday, he shared his thoughts about his recordings, his art, living in El Paso, and one of his new favorite places to play a gig — aboard a moving train.
Russell’s songs have been recorded by many great artists including Johnny Cash, Nancy Griffith, and Guy Clark, and he’s produced 25 critically acclaimed albums. He’s in the process of working on number 26, a follow-up to his latest release, Blood and Candle Smoke. When he stops by the Duck, Russell anticipates sharing some of the songs from his upcoming album, which he’s recording with an all-star musical cast.
“I wanted to stretch out, sonically, on this one, “ Russell tells CultureMap. “So we recorded five songs in Tucson, with Calexico, then recorded in El Paso and San Antonio with Augie Meyers and Joel Guzman, and just recently in Nashville with Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Fats Kaplin, Viktor Krauss (Lyle Lovett’s bassist) and others.”
Although he and Dave Alvin were credited with helping to create the Americana music format following the release of Tulare Dust, their 1994 tribute album to Merle Haggard, Russell defines his music in broader terms.
“I don’t want to be jammed into that catch-all box they’ve been calling “Americana.’ What the hell does that mean? I notice nobody calls Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan ‘Americana,’” he says. “If I had a sound that I really want to aim for it would be Leonard Cohen’s live sound in recent concerts ... it references the world without overpowering his masterful songs.”
Of late, Russell has become a featured performer on a series of moving folk festivals aboard trains in Canada, Mexico and the Great American West, through a company called Roots on the Rails. Each train trek hosts around 70 roots-music enthusiasts for a series of private concerts, music workshops, and late-night song circles — sort of a civilized, land-locked version of those musical cruise ships that have become so popular in the past few years.
“My partner on the rails, Charlie Hunter (mastermind behind the Roots on the Rails trips), approached me about seven years ago with the idea of putting together performers for Canadian train trips,” Russell says. “Since then we’ve done 10 of those, and two into Mexico, and now have one coming up in January with Jimmy Webb and Jesse Winchester from LA to San Francisco and back ... premier songwriters. Top level!”
When Russell hosts a Roots on the Rails trip, he personally books his fellow performers.
“We’ve had Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin, The Flatlanders, Mary Gauthier, Peter Rowan, Eliza Gilkyson, Ramblin’ Jack (Elliott), Ian Tyson and many others ... but I’m really stoked about Jimmy Webb and Jesse Winchester,” (whom he’s scheduled for a trip in January 2011.) Other train trips have featured the Cowboy Junkies and Fred Eaglesmith.
Asked whether he’s had a favorite train trip, Russell said, “I love the Flatlanders. They’ve been with us twice now and they’re down to earth, great writers and singers… folks that have ‘been there,’ wrote about it and are still in their prime. Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The true grit. We did Canada and the Southwest. I also liked going into Mexico with Dave Alvin.”
When he’s off the road (and off the train), Russell heads home, to El Paso. Asked why he’s chosen this relatively remote location, he says, “I wanted to hide. It’s the last frontier. Now, with the war going on in Juarez, it’s the Old West revisited. I love the history here and the desert. I don’t need to live in the networking capitols of the world.
"I want to hide and write and paint. This is the ideal place to disappear. As Raymond Chandler said: ‘Nobody cared if I died or went to El Paso ...' It’s the Patagonia of the United States. I’ve been prolific here…and the back door is Juarez.”
In his spare time, Russell has also become an accomplished visual artist, represented by Yard Dog Folk Art in Austin and Rainbow Man in Santa Fe. Past paintings have addressed a variety of eclectic subjects, from Roberto Duran to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. His recent artwork has taken a slightly different direction, however.
“For some reason I started painting chickens," Russell says. "Aztec chickens, free range chickens, African chickens…who knows why? Chickens, chickens, chickens. Hell, everybody loves a chicken. Who doesn’t love a chicken? Send ‘em over.”
No need to hop a train to get on board for Tom Russell’s next gig — just show up at the Mucky Duck Saturday night ready for new songs, new stories, and, “Yes, we may have chickens with us. I knew you’d ask…”
Tom Russell will appear with Thad Beckman for two shows (7 pm and 9:30 pm) Saturday at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck. He’ll also stop by KPFT 90.1 FM for an interview with Rick Heysquierdo around 11 am Saturday morning.