“Sit on down here, kid, and I’ll have a glass with you.”
In his rollicking and Nashville-indicting song, “The Death of Jimmy Martin,” singer-songwriter Tom Russell declared, “Yeah, don’t call me no country singer/those are poison words to me/’cause I ain’t heard a good country song, since 1973.”
A simple web search of the Billboard Charts tells us ’73 graced us with Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine”; Merle Haggard’s “Everybody’s Had the Blues,” and “If We Make It Through December”; Kristofferson’s “Why Me” and Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.”
Also, most of the most-remembered of Charlie Rich’s songs dropped that year.
Yet Russell’s new album, “October in the Railroad Earth,” feels infinitely more country than any other than the earliest of his releases—on vinyl and cassette in those days, and with the Tom Russell Band.
Tellingly perhaps, or at least strangely appropriately, the new album from Russell is also the first in countless moons that can be had on vinyl.
Also, with its vaguely late-sixties orchestration, dobro, pedal steel guitars and hauntingly evocative snatches of music evoking memories of Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and the barroom colloquies of Tom T. Hall’s circa-’73 chart-topper, it might have gone toe-to-toe with some of the finest, late-1960s Music Row productions.
But this isn’t about nostalgia because this is Tom Russell, now, and not Tom Russell and his 1980s-era band counterpart.
This is fully and squarely 21st-Century Tom Russell: Deftly meta, always-knowing. Sure-footed and offering heavy pours of the top shelf stuff, suggesting the smartest of Nashville before-the-pre-’73 Great Fall’s hey-days.
The opening track, “October in the Railroad Earth,” charts our blood-on-the-tracks, straight-ass thunder drive westward.
It is at once a call back to a cut from 2005’s HOTWALKER, but also drops us square into a freight yard with Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac: “And the freight trains still roll/with their canyon ball soul…”
The guitar riffs that follow evoke a train’s iron wheels' galloping cadence and the lyrics are a passing cascade of Americana images: “His shadow on the shades,” “warped-wood America,” and “old bums with tattoos from Singapore…”
Next follows the definitive version of a rarity from way-back, a track that inspired a small Indy film starring Iain Glen (and actually one of my favorite Russell songs) “Small Engine Repair”:
“If a man’s heart was like lawnmower engine, I’d have done pretty good in my life.”
That segues perfectly into a new keeper, “T-Bone Steak and Spanish Wine” (tragically excised from vinyl for time- and track-limitation reasons, so caveat emptor on that one).
This track is especially evocative of Tom T. Hall’s seventy-three hit with reveries of times past—lost and thought better than the present; dialogue over liquor between a customer and server, and quiet surrender to the silent predator that is time:
“The music ain’t like what it used to be…now it’s all just background noise to me.”
And, perhaps most majestically, we get “Highway 46,” encompassing the dark and sometimes bloody history of west-of-west country music, from Merle and Buck Owens and the Bakersfield Sound, to the swing music of Cali-born wife-killer-by-kicking-and-beating, Spade Cooley, in Kern County, circa sixty-one. (Cooley did the dark deed with his daughter gaping on.)
But more gently, Russell also inquires of us, “Where were you the day Merle Haggard died?”
Wistfully as it’s put, even that’s a very weighted question, particularly coming from Russell, who through HOTWALKER’S Little Jack Horton, midget circus performer, fulminated, “Did they fly (the flag) at half-mast for Ray Charles? Did they fly at half-mast for Johnny Cash? Declare a national holiday?”
On “Highway 46,” Russell sings, “Pedal steels and Telecasters/the treble turned up bright/Oh I wish I was in Bakersfield tonight.”
And as we open the new Russell release with a train-infused song, we can only close it with another train tune, possibly the great-granddaddy of all train songs, “The Wreck of the Old 97.”
Russell teed-up his classic 2001 album BORDERLAND with a quote from crime novelist Raymond Chandler: “…nobody cared if I died or went to El Paso.”
Prefacing Johnny Cash’s iconic train tune, Russell again quotes Chandler and creeps in a second album reference to that certain Southeast Asia island city-state:
“You know, I’m an occasional drinker. The kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”
Then Russell elaborates, “I like those old songs, about drinkin’ and cheatin’; murder and train wrecks.”
Laundry listing classic country music tropes, the late-songwriter Steve Goodman couldn’t have chosen better.
In terms of writing knowing country music evocative of the best of smart country classics, Russell is—and piercingly so for those of us who still love the 1960s- and early-1970s Nashville singer-songwriter era of Newbury, Kristofferson, Prine, Gatlin, et al—utterly without peer.
COMING JULY 15, 2019
FROM CRAIG McDONALD,
A NEW NOVEL:
An excellent and sublime Tom Russell essay on U.S. and Mexico frictions is also featured in BORDERLAND NOIR, published by Betimes Books...