Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tom Russell: ‘The eyes of God shine through the coyote fence’

Tom Russell’s new album, Folk Hotel, is another stirring recording, mixing spoken word and song.

The opening track, “Up in the Old Hotel,” sets the stakes and charts the territory ahead as Russell invokes the name of Joseph Mitchell, a journalist and essayist noted for “his carefully written portraits of eccentrics and people on the fringes of society.” 

(Tellingly, Mitchell’s collected New Yorker magazine pieces appeared in a volume called—ahemUp in the Old Hotel.)

This album finds our decidedly bookish and dogged troubadour (“But you keep on going, ’cause in this, there’s no retirement”) laying down tracks that could double as short stories and tone poems.

Sticking with his Mitchell-like enduring identification with outsiders—and his continuing celebration of those dwelling on the fringes of present-day, sterile society—Russell’s next track, “Leaving El Paso,” is a fine addition to his La Frontera catalogue of borderland tunes, this one tracing the singer-songwriter’s migration from the southernmost edge of Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico:

“The Rio Grande's gone bone dry, and all the stories have been told.”

Next comes a touching tribute to Ian Tyson: “It’s ten below zero; he’s forty miles outside of town…”

“I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses,” lays out Tyson’s daily ritual of songwriting in tandem with caring for an aging stock of cattle and “five head of horses.”

“If I sold off and left them, I wouldn’t be much of a man,” Russell has Tyson declaring, then observing, “after eighty-four years, kid, it’s too late to second-guess your choices.”


Many Russell records—hell, even entire albums (The Man from God Knows Where, Rose of Roscrae)—intersect with, or celebrate Celtic standards, airs and themes.

Hotel is no different, giving us piercing visions of Dylan Thomas, including the song “The Sparrow of Swansea,” tallying the Welsh poet’s favorite watering holes and haunts along his doomed-ridden road to a record-setting (and fatal) downing of “18 straight shots of whiskey” in the White Horse Tavern.

“All on a Belfast Morning,” opens with clock tower chimes, then a recitation by Russell in full bass brogue of Irish writer and actor James H. Cousins’ poem “High and Low,” before shifting into a ballad that evokes Irish singer-songwriter Johnny Duhan, singing of buskers and shop girls who “in their sweet young breasts, the melodies, they’re storing...”

The Irish themes are most overt in a medley opening with another Russell spoken-word track, “The Day They Dredged the Liffey,” then moving into “The Banks of Montauk” and “The Road to Santa Fe-O.”

The song “Rise Again, Handsome Johnny” is a jaunty tune paying tribute to Ireland’s favorite dead American, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Sitting dead center in the album are my two most returned-to tracks.

The first, “Harlan Clancy,” is a Trump-era portrait of a working-class man in fly-over country (“out here in the middle of Ohio; a place you’ll never go”) who is left increasingly dismayed by and feeling dislocated from his native land.

I’ll submit it’s not a reach to hear this one as Russell’s own “answer song” to his “Who’s Going To Build Your Wall.”

“He said he was sick of the bad news shows, and all the drug commercials,” Augie Meyers confides in an opening vignette, setting up the first-person POV ballad that follows from Tom: “I’m Harlan Clancy, I descend from the Irish… I ain’t no racist, I ain’t no redneck… We keep our nose to the grindstone…”

The most haunting tune for me—the one I seem happily fated to play to death from this album—is one Russell has described as a song written in a Townes Van Zandtian dream state.

"The Last Time I Saw Hank" is a powerful meditation on last moments glimpsed of musical idols, saviors and most wrenchingly, of parents.

The sometimes beautifully surreal words are set against one of Russell's most piercing and haunting melodies:

"The last time I saw my mother, someone put a rose on her forehead/Was this miracle or mockery?"

More than two dozen albums in, Russell seems to somehow go deeper and grab tighter and more urgently with each new work. In a run of exceptional records spanning decades, this one is, what Russell's fellow Angelino James Ellroy might term, Tom's "latest classic."

—Craig McDonald
Oct. 7, 2017
Reynoldsburg, Ohio (a place you'll never go)

Buy it from official store here

or from Amazon here

Thursday, October 5, 2017


The Hector Lassiter novels (ten of them, including HEAD GAMES) frequently incorporate real people.

All of that carries over into HEAD GAMES, THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, coming Oct. 24, 2017 from First Second Books.

The range of “real characters” is prodigious, from the real-life personalities who dominate some of those books’ action, to those real people who are, well, fleeting, yet still influential.

Some are famous, some are even infamous. 

Some are little known to the wider public, yet they affected the course of history and the Lassiter series sometimes aims to give these historical ghosts their proper due.

To give a little bonus context to those “characters” who appear in HEAD GAMES: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, we’re delving into each, here and there, over successive Thursdays…

Ernest Hemingway lovingly dubbed her “The Kraut.” The stuff of their meeting is Pop Culture legend.

On a cross-Atlantic voyage, they met over dinner. Realizing she was about to become the thirteenth at the table, Marlene Dietrich, German-born actress and chanteuse demurred.

Then a voice interrupted: 

“I will happily become the fourteenth,” said Ernest Hemingway.

They were, by virtual mutual disclosure, in love without ever making love.

Call it ships in the night, or what Hem termed, “unsynchronized passion.”

Hem went on: “Those times when I was out of love, the Kraut was deep in some romantic tribulation, and on those occasions when Dietrich was on the surface and swimming about with those marvelously seeking eyes, I was submerged.”

In HEAD GAMES: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, “The Kraut” is another example of what songwriter Tom Russell termed filmmaker Orson Welle’s “tragic” miscasting of the now revered noir.

In the film TOUCH OF EVIL, whose set our hero Hector Lassiter and his interviewer/poet Bud Fiske visit in HEAD GAMES, Dietrich is mysteriously cast as a Mexican madame.

She doesn’t get much screen-time, but she delivers a killer presence and delivers the film’s devastating closing last line on Police Captain Hank Quinlan as portrayed by Welles: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Then she walks off into the distance, just like Welles’ character’s former lover, Anna Schmidt in THE THIRD MAN, a nice and clear premediated call-back.)

Marlene is a hectoring presence in reuniting Hector and Hem in HEAD GAMES: THE NOVEL, and that reunion occurs in TOROS & TORSOS.

Miss Dietrich also has a fleeting appearance in the Hector Lassiter novel ROLL THE CREDITS, set in occupied Paris, during WWII.

Next time: JANET LEIGH


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook