Tom Russell has no patience for pigeonholes. Despite a penchant for rootsy story-songs about dust-blown, blue-collar characters, he scoffs at the Americana tag that’s been hung around his neck for years.
“They always need a tag — progressive country, new country, altcountry — to put outsider writing in,” Russell said. “I don’t see my music being strictly Americana. They don’t put that tag on Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. There’s really no type to what I’ve done. I’ve written cowboy songs. I’ve written rock ’n’ roll and country. I’ve written a lot of film music. I don’t want to be put in that bag.”
You might argue the man doth protest too much. But listen to his latest, 2009’s “Blood and Candle Smoke,” and you’ll see his point.
I didn’t have the guts.
Recorded with members of Calexico, the distinctive disc blends waltzes, ballads, gospel, mariachi, jazz, Latin beats, the Oshobogo Orphan Choir, Tex-Mex and sun-baked folk. Over the mix, Russell offers his typically poignant literary touch.
“I really wanted to branch out,” he said, noting the whole process was more collaborative than usual. “(Calexico guitarist) Joey Burns is very interactive, can play any instrument imaginable, has suggestions, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted the sound and the grooves to go elsewhere. If you’re a guitar player like I am or play a little piano, you always go in a certain direction. And I wanted it to kind of flip-flop and go in another direction. … And it gets me out of that bag that they’ll kill you in.”
Russell wanted to be a musician from the first time he saw Bob Dylan, but, he said, “I didn’t have the guts.” Graduating college at 20, he went to Nigeria to teach in 1969, when the country struggled through a bloody tribal war. Instead of doing a lot of teaching, he mostly learned to carve wood and strum a little guitar.
Witnessing all the jealous backbiting and adultery among the faculty, Russell returned to America disillusioned with academia. So he moved to Canada and began playing old Hank Williams tunes at bars and strip clubs along skid row.
Driving a cab in New York in the late 1970s proved fortuitous, because one evening, his fare was Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead. Russell sang him a song, and that kick-started a music career. He’s released at least 15 solo albums ever since, and been lauded as one of his generation’s finest songwriters.
“I was never the kind of guy that said, ‘I want to make it.’ If I had, I would’ve moved to Nashville. But look what happened to Nashville the last 25 years. If you want to sell out, you’re going to stand in a long line,” Russell said. “I’m moving forward on my own out here. You pay a price for that a lot of times, but it’s paying off now. I don’t think you have to be around 40 years for success to happen. It just worked that way with me.”