By Jenny Neyman
For as masterful as he is with language, Tom Russell is difficult to describe. Perhaps because he creates such euphuistic wealth of imagery with such spare use of words that emptying a thesaurus over him is of no better use than pouring sugar on already ripe fruit.
“Musician” is the most recognizable hat he wears, with his 40-year career as a singer-songwriter helping establish the Americana genera with his blend of folk, Tex-Mex and cowboy music. But that brim isn’t near wide enough to cover all his facets.
“Artist” is more encompassing, accounting for his writing, painting and documentary filmmaking.
But that sounds too rarefied, too ungrounded from the realities of life, longing, work, death, drink and dirt on cowboy boots. Russell, for all his poetic phrases and vibrant paint strokes, has a master’s degree in criminology, spent a year teaching in war-torn Nigeria and gained his re-entry to the music industry through connections made while driving a taxi in Queens, New York.
Russell’s creations read more as novelistic stories than songs, and his performances are experiences more than concerts.
“I consider Tom’s stuff folk music. He’s a songwriter, too, and what’s so much fun about it is he talks about what the situation was in the background of the song. The stories are as interesting as the songs are,” said Dick Erkeneff, of Soldotna. “Tom coming up here to do a series of concerts in Alaska, I think, is fun for Alaskans to get a taste of his music. I really look forward to it.”
In addition to stops in Palmer, Talkeetna and Anchorage, Russell will perform in Kenai from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Kenai Chamber and Visitors Center, put on by Joe Ray Skrha and the Performing Arts Society. Skrha, a musician during his off hours from being an attorney, has known Russell for about eight years, having been on about 10 Roots on Rails music festivals that Russell helps organize. They’re trips on vintage streamliner trains through scenic destinations — across Canada, to the Copper Canyon in Mexico and throughout the West Coast — with musicians, historical interpreters and naturalists aboard to perform and give presentations. Skrha got hooked on Russell’s abilities and musical style, and particularly respects his lyric skill.
“I’ve worked with a lot of musicians and I don’t think there’s a better writer alive today. I don’t think there’s a better artist alive today,” Skrha said. “His descriptive writing — the words, the verses, the ways that the words interplay with meaning.”
Russell is sometimes lumped in the same genera as Bob Dylan, both being singer-songwriters and storytellers. Russell’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, k.d. lang, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Gretchen Peters, Nanci Griffith, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Iris Dement, Dave Alvin and Suzy Bogguss. But whereas Dylan might be more widely known, Skrha posits that Russell has the better voice, both for singing and sharing stories.
“People would get turned on with Dylan, like when he did ‘Master of War’ or some of the other great songs. Dylan did great songs but Dylan was not the great communicator that Tom is. Go to Tom’s concerts and see how he talks to the audience, how he shares things that he’s done over the years,” Skrha said.
Russell has volumes of stories to share, manifested in more than 25 albums put out since 1976, with his most recent, “Mesabi,” released in 2011. Some fodder comes from his own life, as with “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam,” inspired by his time in Nigeria. His highly regarded 1999 album, “The Man From God Knows Where,” is a folk opera chronicling the difficult, disenchanted life of immigrant Americans, loosely based on his own family history.
But much of Russell’s songwriting is about lives beyond his, filtered and amplified through his own sometimes sentimental, sometimes stark, always richly imagined and deftly specific perspective. He’s turned that lens on the cowboy West, the grime behind the glitz of Hollywood, the border culture of Texas and Mexico.
Some of it is as straight-up rollicking as a shot of rye whiskey. “Tonight We Ride” is cowboy through and through:
“When I’m too damn old to sit a horse, I’ll steal the warden’s car
Break my ass out of this prison, leave my teeth there in a jar
You don’t need no teeth for kissin’ gals or smokin’ cheap cigars
I’ll sleep with one eye open, ‘neath God’s celestial stars
… Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
Tonight we fly, we’re headin’ west
Toward the mountains and the ocean where the eagle makes his nest
If our bones bleach on the desert, we’ll consider we are blessed
Tonight we ride, tonight we ride.”
Or Erkeneff’s favorite, “Blue Wing,” from the 1990 album “Poor Man’s Dream,” which refers to the tattoo of a cellmate dreaming of better days gone by in Alaska:
“He had a blue wing tattooed on his shoulder
Well it might have been a blue bird I don’t know
But he gets stone drunk and talks about Alaska
The salmon boats and 45 below.
“… And he drank and he dreamt of visions when the salmon still ran free
And his fathers, fathers crossed that wild old Bering Sea
And the land belonged to everyone and there were old songs yet to sing
Now it’s narrowed down to a cheap hotel and a tattooed prison wing.”
Listening to a Russell song is like peering through a window on someone’s life, where each detail of the tableau speaks volumes of the character who inhabits it. As in “The Pugilist at 59,” off the 2006 “Love and Fear” album:
“Cold chicken salad, a glass of iced tea
Phone bills, gas bills, electricity
And the mortgage and the junk mail, one old Father’s Day card
Yeah, go sweat it out, kid, it’s 108 in the yard.
“The harder we love, the harder we fall
It’s cauliflower hearts and old medicine balls
And back street affairs in all the water tank towns
Well, there’s a mighty thin line between a heavyweight champ and a used up old clown.”
The scene and storyline seen through Russell’s window are rendered hopeful, melancholy, victorious, reckless, determined, aching, desperate or any other sentiment Russell wants to evoke through the film he gives to the window.
In his music about border culture, the sentiment is wistful, running toward tragic at times, but respectfully empathetic. “Guadalupe,” on Russell’s 2009 “Blood and Candle Smoke” album, describes the pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
“There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
High up in those ancient trees
And I have given up without a fight
Another blind fool on his knees.
And all the gods that I’d abandoned
Begin to speak in simple tongue
And suddenly I’ve come to know
There are no roads left to run.
… She is reaching out her arms tonight
and, Lord, my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again
from Guadalupe on her hill.”
The border culture of Texas and Mexico has been a deep well of inspiration for Russell since settling in El Paso. His musical sound saddles the borders between several styles, as well. Guitar is the staple, often with the rolling trot of a cowboy horse-riding gait, spiced with Spanish guitar flourishes and shiny Mariachi accordion flare, or occasional piano sweetens up several ballads. In his long career, Russell has utilized all manner of other instrumentation, from banjo and ukulele to rarities such as the Uilleann bagpipes and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.
In his Kenai concert, Russell will be performing with guitarist Thad Beckman.
“He always has another guitar player with him, and they’re always very good, really technical guitar players,” Erkeneff said.
As much as he enjoys the music, though, the even bigger draw is the storytelling.
“He has a great variety of songs that he does, and a lot of these songwriters, their backgrounds are really interesting, too. They’ve had such neat experiences, and a lot of them weren’t born with a silver spoon,” Erkeneff said. “People will really like it. We get some good artists to come to our little town, and I think everyone will really be pleased by this one.”
Skrha predicts Russell will play some songs from his most-recent album, “Mesabi,” but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“Every day is different. He has easily a good 300 to 400 songs (he regularly plays) but it’s the other 600 that when you get him to do one of those, they’re really unique,” Skrha said. “I just encourage people to come. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Tickets are $30 in advance or $35 at the door, available at the Law Offices of Joe Ray Skrha in Kenai, Veronica’s Old Town Café in Kenai, Whitey’s Music Store on Kalifornsky Beach Road and River City Books in Soldotna. Doors open at 5 p.m. with the concert at 6 p.m.