This work by Tom Russell is a highly ambitious album: a song-cycle, practically an opera, whose storyline extends from Ireland to the American West to the island of Molokai, where the priest Father Damien cared for outcast lepers.
In the title song, Johnny Dutton tells of being beaten up by the father of the beautiful 15-year-old Rose (after being caught in the hayloft with her) and making his way from Ireland to the United States, where he planned to live out the dreams he had absorbed from cheap novels of the West.
Johnny works for the legendary rancher Charlie Goodnight, but eventually turns to a life of crime. He is caught and found guilty, but escapes. He is pursued by his nemesis Augie Blood, US Marshal and evangelist, who travels in a prairie schooner (drawn by mules named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) with a cross on the sail and a saloon piano in the back on which he plays gospel tunes.
Will Johnny escape Augie Blood? Will he ever be reunited with the Rose of Roscrae? Will his longing for Ireland ever take him back to the Old Country?
A few of the songs:
He Wasn’t a Bad Kid When He Was Sober. (Russell got a letter from “a rather well-known Western artist” who apparently wanted him to write a song based on “new information that Billy the Kid was a real hero of sorts. A true Irishman and a friend of the Mexican poor.” This song is Russell’s answer)
There are a LOT of performers on this album, in addition to Tom R himself, they include Johnny Cash, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Maura O’Connell, Ian Tyson, and Gretchen Peters. There is even a Swiss Yodel Choir!
When I first heard this album, I liked it but didn’t think it quite measured up to TR’s earlier song-cycle, The Man from God Knows Where (link goes to my review) But The Rose of Roscrae grows on you. An exceptional piece of work, well-worth buying and listening to many times.