Singer/Songwriter Appreciation: Tom Russell

From an Amazon customer review of one of Tom Russell’s albums:

Twice in my life, while driving in heavy freeway traffic, I’ve heard songs so good on the radio that I had to pull off the road and collect my thoughts. Turns out Tom Russell wrote both of ’em.

I’ve never had to actually pull off the road, but there’s no denying that TR’s songs pack a considerable emotional punch…indeed, I think Russell is one of the most talented singer/songwriters working today. I’ve been meaning to write a review of his work for some time, and was stirred into action by L C Reese’s post Grasshoppers and Frost, which reminded me of some lines from Russell’s song Ambrose Larsen:

The blackbirds and the locusts, destroyed our corn and wheat
The hawks they ate the chickens, the wolves our mutton meat
With traps and dogs and shotguns loud, we fought this old wild ground
Our children caught the fever, but no doctors were around

(listen here)

The above is from TR’s album The Man From God Knows Where, a song-cycle about the American immigrant experience based in part on the lives of his own Norwegian and Irish ancestors. “Concept albums often fall flat because they are too explicit” noted an SFGate review of this work, “…but The Man From God Knows Where triumphs by laying out the story of one man’s family in intimate detail while developing general themes that inform all our lives.”

The stories are told in first person, Here’s Mary Clare Malloy, one of 700 “picture brides” immigrating from Ireland to join the men they have arranged to marry:

We disembarked and stood in line with chalk marks on our coats
It was X for mental illness, if E back on the boat
They asked us what our breeding was, and could we read or write
The sound of women weeping filled the dormitories at night

My best friend was deported back, to a poor Killea home
Another sent to Swinbourne Isle, died of cholera alone
The rest of us were shipped to trains bound for Midwest states
To wild and stormy prairie lands and our prospective mates

(listen here)

The album captures the almost unbearable nostalgia that must have afflicted immigrants in a time when there was no fast and low-cost transoceanic travel, no international phone calls, especially in The Old Northern Shore. Those who inhabited the country prior to the coming of the immigrants are not neglected–a passage from the epynonymous Man from God Knows Where:

I’ve heard the sound of Indian drums, I’ve heard the bugles blow.
Before they rewrote history, into a Wild West Show.
My kin sailed toward America, to steal their Indian ground.
They passed Bill Cody’s circus ships, European bound.

…segues into:

Look at me, brave Sitting Bull, in this gondola canoe
Bill Cody brings us smoke and meat, so what are we to do?
I came across the water, in a boat no man could row
To play war in front of strangers, in Cody’s Wild West show

(The reference is to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906. Sitting Bull did participate in the show, though there is some question about whether he was actually in Venice.)

The album ends with the beautiful song Love Abides, which can be heard in full here. (Different version from the one on this album, though.) And here is a tracklist for the entire album, with playable samples of about half the songs.

Singers contributing to this album, in addition to Russell himself, include Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, and Dave Van Ronk. The voice of Walt Whitman is also present, via an old cylinder recording. Most of the songs were written by Russell; there are also several traditional songs and David Massengill’s Rider on an Orphan Train. This album is a very ambitious piece of work, and one that worked out extremely well. Highly recommended. Almost all the songs work fine on a stand-alone basis, but I suggest listening to the album straight through on initial hearing.

See also reviews from SFGate and SoundStage.

The Man From God Knows Where is only one of the 20 or so albums that Russell has done. I’ll talk about some of the songs on these other albums in a future post.