Tuesday, June 18, 2019


“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 

An excellent and sublime Tom Russell essay on U.S. and Mexico frictions is also featured in BORDERLAND NOIR, published by Betimes Books...

Friday, June 14, 2019


On July 15, 2019, Down & Out Books will release my new novel, ONCE A WORLD.
While a kind of prequel to my Edgar/Anthony Awards nominated novel, HEAD GAMES, the new work is also very much a standalone novel...a portrait of the crime novelist as a young man.
Here's the pitch:
Border tensions are escalating to bloody violence; terrorist attacks on small-town American citizens and petty squabbles in far-flung locales threaten countless more lives. 
Welcome to America, circa 1916-1918, and two of the bloodiest conflicts that starkly defined an era. 
Teenage Hector Lassiter, an aspiring author inspired by propaganda and a siren’s song of throbbing war drums, lies about his age, mounts a horse, and storms across the Mexican border behind General “Black Jack” Pershing and George S. Patton to bring the terrorist and Revolutionary General Pancho Villa to justice. 
Soon, the still underage Hector is shipped off to the bloody trenches of France, fighting the so-called “War to End All Wars” where he meets fellow novelists-in-waiting, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. 
Once A World is a love story at once epic and intimate; a portrait of the artist, and his country of birth, at a defining moment in their storied history. 
Edgar- and Anthony Awards finalist Craig McDonald, author of the internationally bestselling Hector Lassiter series, delivers an adventure novel and historical thriller for the still-uncertain 21st Century. 
Praise for Craig McDonald: 
“The competition for the future of crime fiction is fierce, as it should be, but don’t take your eyes off Craig McDonald. He’s wily, talented and—rarest of the rare—a true original. I am always eager to see what he’s going to do next.” —Laura Lippman 
“With each of his Hector Lassiter novels, Craig McDonald has stretched his canvas wider and unfurled tales of increasingly greater resonance.” —Megan Abbott 
“Nobody does mad pulp history like Craig McDonald. Reading a Hector Lassiter novel is like having a great uncle pull you aside, pour you a tumbler of rye, and tell you a story about how the 20th century really went down.” —Duane Swierczynski 
“A writer of truly unique voice, approach and ambition.” —Michael Koryta