Wire from the Bunker: Tom Russell
Happy New Year, ya’ll! 2023 was a real doozy in so many ways but for John Train it was pretty darn good: we released Cowboy Dreams, our first album to appear on vinyl, and it garnered substantial press attention and radio play. Not bad for a completely independent band!
But amidst all the hoo-hah, I never got to acknowledge perhaps my biggest songwriting influence in terms of pulling together this particular collection: the great Tom Russell.
I first saw Tom when he was em-ceeing a show at Slim’s in San Francisco in 1991. Also on the bill were Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Dave Alvin. For some reason, Russell didn’t register for me. This was probably due to the fact that this show was the very first time I got to see Butch and Jimmie in person which for me was a very momentous occasion. And Dave Alvin is no slouch either!
But TR musta made some sort of impression on me because just a little while later I recall picking up three cassettes of his music at Tower Records (probably in Rockville, Maryland). They were, in order of release, Poor Man’s Dream, Hurricane Season, and Cowboy Real, all on the storied Philo-Rounder label. Well, lemme tell ya: those tapes were in very heavy rotation during the ensuing years as I drove my yellow Chevy Caprice from pillar to post like a trucker hopped up on black beauties and LA turnarounds. Dream and Hurricane contain the core group of songs that established Russell as one of the finest songwriters of his or any generation: Blue Wing, Gallo Del Cielo, Navajo Rug, Veteran’s Day, Haley’s Comet, Outbound Plane, Beyond the Blues etc etc. What struck me about these songs is their utter lack of irony or cleverness. Russell writes very close to the bone without a wasted word or image, something that I tried with varying degrees of success to emulate as a developing songwriter myself. While Russell has put out literally scores of fine records since, Poor Man’s Dream and Hurricane Season are as good a place as any to begin your Tom Russell journey. Your life will be enriched, I promise.
As much as I was knocked out by the two aforementioned releases, it was the third, Cowboy Real, that hit me the hardest (these boxing metaphors are on point as Tom has written at least three songs about the “sport”: Jack Johnson, Muhammed Ali, and the Eyes of Roberta Duran). Cowboy Real was my first introduction to Western themed music and led me back to some of its finest practitioners, such as the legendary Ian Tyson who co-wrote Navajo Rug with TR. But the thing that stuck was the way Russell pulled together a group of songs around a theme in a loose but powerful manner. He included some of his own classics alongside numbers such as Indian Cowboy by Joe Ely and Sonora’s Death Row by Blackie Farrell. This is exactly what I had in mind with John Train’s Cowboy Dreams: some of my own and some by others, all around a cowboy theme.
Well, for real for real, not exactly “cowboy.” In the last song on Cowboy Real, Russell sang of a dried-up old roper named Roanie who he called “a drugstore vaquero” by which he meant “great Western Bullshit artist” as he explained in the liner notes. Russell actually came by his cowboy chops the real way: he grew up out West, his father was involved in horses (mostly via betting!) and his brother, Pat, rode broncs and worked on many a ranch. Although Russell would later move to El Paso, at the time of Cowboy Real, he was camped out in a converted Brooklyn storefront and played regular gigs at the Rodeo Bar in NYC. I could and still relate to that: I’ve hung around quite a few stables but, when the sun sets, pard, I’m a drugstore vaquero at best! City-slicker real, yo!
One more thing: I always loved Russell’s sense of irony and dark edge on stage. Tom’s best songs are about as genuine as can be without veering into corn. But, boy, Tom’s sarcasm before an audience is something that I also glommed onto for better or for worse (depends who you ask). Somehow Russell, despite developing a large (sic) cult audience throughout the world, never got his thing going here in Philly which is odd given this city’s folk traditions, strong public radio, etc. One time, I saw TR play to a half empty room at the Tin Angel which was a very small venue to begin with. I remember him looking out over the audience or what there was of it and saying completely deadpan: “We’re building something here.” Hah!
Anyway, Tom, I’ll send these five songs back your way with affection from the city that never really showed you any >>>
Tonight We Ride: Tom Russell may be the only artist on an independent label who played on Letterman multiple times. Why? Cuz Dave loved him. With the possible exception of Warren Zevon, Letterman would tell you that Tom Russell is the best damn songwriter in the world and that’d he’d stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table and tell you so. Tonight We Ride – the lead track from TR’s Indians, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs (another Western themed affair in this case for the late lamented HighTone label) – demonstrates Russell at his finest: it could have been written a hundred years ago, today, or a hundred years from now. Timeless stuff. Tom sings: “When I’m too damn old to sit a horse, I’ll steal the warden’s car // Break my ass out of this prison, leave my teeth there in a jar // You don’t need no teeth for kissing gals or smokin’ cheap cigars // I’ll sleep with one eye open ‘neath God’s celestial stars.” Yessir, Tom, that is the “cowboy way to go.” Preach.
Black Pearl: This should give you a pretty good approximation of what the Tom Russell Band was capable of in live performance. Don’t worry about their hair! Check out Andrew Hardin on guitar and Fats Kaplin on accordion. Lord have mercy! These guys define “crackerjack.” Black Pearl is the lead-off track from Hurricane Season and rightfully so: it contains one of Tom’s catchiest melodies. “Don’t talk to me of politics, don’t talk to me of war // For I have seen her secret things upon the shower door // I’ve seen presidents corrupted; I’ve seen kings down on their knees // It wasn’t revolution, lust was the disease.” To paraphrase Walter Sobchak, say what you like about the tenets of Tom’s political theory here, Dude, at least it's an ethos. Shower door, indeed.
Blue Wing: Tom has written so many classics but this song is widely considered to be his masterwork. I won’t quote any specific lines because every one of them could practically stand on its own. I really struggled as to whether to present Tom’s version or Dave Alvin’s. The Master-Blaster included it on his best solo album, The King of California. But I ultimately went with the author’s as Dave, for reasons unknown, does NOT go to the Em on the word “dream” in the chorus. I love Alvin’s aesthetics but going to the major there almost changes the meaning of the song. Yea, I know I’m pretty deep in the muso woods here. But I’m trying to get these Wires right even if/tho no one – and I do mean, no one – is reading them! Check out the freaky Fins listening in this video. Europeans appreciated Tom long before he cracked America.
Gallo Del Cielo: When Joe Ely covers your song, you are in some very rare and exalted company (read: Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore). I wrote about Ely recently here >>> https://www.trainarmy.com/single-post/wire-from-the-bunker-hey-joe-get-well-soon
According to Clarence Clemons, both Springsteen and Dylan also admired Russell’s rooster pecking corrido. What a tale Tom spins! I just noticed that no less than three of my selections here involve accordion: Paul Schaffer’s, Fats Kaplin’s and in this case Joel Guzman’s which may be the best of all! Gallo will certainly give you an idea of Russell’s narrative skills which I’d put up against any prose writers including some of Russell’s own heroes such as Graham Greene.
St. Olav’s Gate: When Nanci Griffith passed away in 2021, I never really got a chance to acknowledge her. She was a giant. What a beauty! What a voice! Although he couldn’t be credited with “discovering” her per se, Russell was one of the first to acknowledge her talent, coaxing her from the shadows into the male dominated campfire song swaps of the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival back in the 70s. Nanci didn’t have the impeccable taste in material that Joe Ely has – From a Distance, anyone? – but she sure paid back any debt to TR with her wonderful renditions of his songs. I hear that the buskers still sing St. Olav’s Gate in Norway. From Tom’s pen directly into the culture. Real folk music, kids.
So here’s to the ladies, Tom, and big love from the city of the brotherly kind!
As to the rest of you punters, I’ll see you at Ferg’s. We’re building something here.