“Dammit Kid, once we had a world you won’t ever be knowin’.”
—“The Last Running”
“There’s a time for sober introspection
And a time to cut the wild dogs loose.”
Many are declaring Tom Russell’s new and sprawling, fifty-two track double album The Rose of Roscrae to be his masterpiece—“a Ballad of the West” or, variously, a Western/Folk/Americana opera.
Arguably—bear in mind this comes from an author who’s written an entire novel or two inspired and informed by Russell’s music—the singer-songwriter has a half-dozen masterpieces already at his back.
This time, Russell’s previous western albums (Cowboy Real, Songs of The West and more) collide with Les Miserables and David Milch’s Deadwood. The result is a staggering feat of the imagination. No other living singer-songwriter even contemplates making albums like this one.
And yet, we have been at least a little ways down this particular road with Russell before, though never on quite this grand a scale.
Talking about this project when it was still a work in progress, Russell often described it as the looming last-third of a triptych that includes his landmark immigration saga The Man From God Knows Where (1999), then continues on through the largely spoken-word Hotwalker. (Released in 2005, chronologically speaking, the 2Oth-Century centric Hotwalker is the logical final installment of these three brilliantly idiosyncratic albums).
Tonally, structurally and with its strong sense of Irish culture and music, at least superficially, Rose hews much closer to The Man From God Knows Where.
While the new album also boasts some great spoken word pieces, The Rose of Roscrae is chockfull of music in a way Hotwalker was not—you’ve got plenty of great new tunes from Russell, interspersed with snippets of classic Irish ballads and Western trail songs. There are plenty of terrific Russell tracks deftly weaving between cameos from fellow singer-songwriters Johnny Cash, Guy Clark and Gretchen Peters, among many others.
Call it aural montage or call it the soundtrack for a Western that doesn’t but should exist, Roscrae is largely carried on the troubled back of an Irish immigrant named Johnny Dutton.
Our “hero” leaves Ireland at age sixteen in the late 1880s. He roams western America, living a picaresque outlaw existence during the dying days of the mythic Old West, “a jack of all trades and master of none,” with a penchant for collecting other men’s sage words and spontaneously breaking into song.
Dutton also acquires a longish list of outlaw nicknames and dabbles in enough bare knuckles boxing to addle an already dodgy and drink-soaked brain. All the while, he is seeking his fellow expatriate Irish inamorata, the titular Rose of Roscrae.
The first disc (or “act”) focuses largely on the male side of the story; disc two substantially shifts the point of view to a female perspective.
Russell and co-producer Barry Walsh have unleashed a work whose scope, ambition and giddy swagger stubbornly but winningly defy easy summation.
So I’ll throw up my hands and focus on the words and the music of a few choice cuts.
“The Rose of Roscrae” is a terrific Irish ballad that succeeds in sounding like something that’s always been there—a tune that has surely been belted out by generations of well-oiled pub-crawlers between slurred renditions of “Carrickfergus,” and “The Fields of Athenry.”
The melody of the rousing “Hair Trigger Heart,” evokes some of the feeling of “Human Touch”-era Bruce Springsteen: “I’ve known love from every angle/I never learned the art of the graceful getaway.”
He “Wasn’t A Bad Kid When He Was Sober” exuberantly dissects the walleyed-romantic bullshit of the “misunderstood outlaw” mystique (think Billy the Kid or Jesse James): “Racist, sexist, moved to Texas/passed a dozen worthless checks/killed three men and made it across the border.”
The most beautiful of the Russell-penned songs on this new collection is presented twice, sung from the male perspective (Russell) and the female (the brilliant Maura O’Connell): “She Talks To God,” is an elegiac, moving piece of songwriting that instantly enters the Russell pantheon alongside his relatively recent and sublime “Guadalupe,” which is also sampled on the second disc, sung by Gretchen Peters.
And that’s the other thing about this one: Apart from being a widescreen reflection back on the Old West—its culture, myth and legends—this double album also looks back on Russell’s own long and impressive career, with numerous callbacks to earlier recordings and snippets of countless prior Russell-penned songs and signature covers.
Where Tom Russell goes from here is a compelling befuddlement to me—this release seems to be a capstone and a summation of nearly all that came before it.
In terms of those earlier mentioned spoken-word tracks, two keep drawing me back for repeat plays. The first comes via the great David Olney (he “covers the noir domain better that anyone,” as Russell rightly claims). In the role of Dutton’s rueful sidekick, Judge Squig, Olney recites in “The Sidekick’s Last Testament” an ill-considered “truth-to-power” epistle that makes clear candor is too often dangerously overrated.
Closely following Olney’s tour-de-force is a terrific monologue that Russell penned in inspiration from a John Graves’ short story set to an elegant and aching tune by Chip Taylor and John Platania.
“The Last Running” tells of a ragtag collection of Comanches who shame a last buffalo off a rancher for a final hunt. A younger witness to this event, looking back over the years, confesses, “It’ stuck with me more than most things I’ve witnessed and all that history I ever learned in school.”
In sum, I flat-out love this latest Russell release: I also joyfully “ran down the rabbit hole” of its accompanying paperback libretto/program guide that’s a work of folk culture and songwriting archeology unto itself.
I’m pretty certain I’ll get at least one more Russell-inspired novel out of this album—hell, may even three or four: it’s an audacious achievement and one to be savored.
So, is this Tom Russell’s masterpiece? I’d say it’s certainly one of them.
(Note: Russell closes his paperback “program guide” with an afterword that is also a tribute to Ernest Hemingway and the author’s classic chapter from his bullfighting tome, Death in the Afternoon, in which Hem writes of all the things he didn’t get to write about more formally in that book. A few years back, I interviewed Mr. Russell for a never-released third collection of author/songwriter interviews. Our talk was at points very Hemingway-centric. This weekend, for the first time ever, and in celebration of Tom Russell’s new album, I’ll share that interview from that un-published book.)