A fascination with American folk culture and traditional music has been the hallmark of singer/songwriter Tom Russell’s career. From his recording debut in the mid-1970s onwards, he has grown into the role of a musical storyteller, focusing in particular on America’s working class and its struggles. Russell has cultivated an international following for his literate, well-crafted songs, which draw upon both country and acoustic folk styles for inspiration. Besides releasing 14 albums of original material, his compositions have been recorded by Nanci Griffith, Johnny Cash, Suzy Bogguss, Ian Tyson, Jerry Jeff Walker and other respected artists.
A Los Angeles native, Russell felt drawn to America’s folk music heritage while still a child. “As a kid, I was interested in early folk songs,” he told Contemporary Musicians in a telephone interview. “The first songs I heard from my brother were the cowboy ballads like ‘Sam Bass’ and ‘Jesse James,’ the ones that were really polished by being handed down over and over. I was so intrigued with how somebody could keep your attention with a narrative through seven or eight verses, whereas very rarely was I as moved by contemporary love songs or pop songs, until they became arty with Dylan or the Beatles.”
Russell began performing in 1971 in Vancouver, Canada, where he played country music with various bands in local clubs. “We were backing topless dancers, strippers, female impersonators, dog acts and sword swallowers,” he recalled in a Hightone Records press biography. From there, he moved to Austin, Texas, in 1974 to take part in the burgeoning country music scene there. Forming a duo with singer/keyboardist Patricia Hardin, he began to perform his own original songs. Russell and Hardin went on to record a pair of albums for the small Demo Records label—Ring Of Bone and Wax Museum, released in 1976 and 1978, respectively. These albums were critically well-received, but sales were minimal. The duo broke up in San Francisco in 1979.
Putting music aside for a time, Russell moved to New York and pursued fiction writing, securing a deal with the William Morris Agency to help place his manuscripts. When this failed to yield results, he took to driving a taxicab to earn a living. One of his fares was Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who encouraged him to resume songwriting after hearing some of his material. By the mid-1980s, he was performing once again, this time in tandem with guitarist Andrew Hardin. Venturing into Europe, he was particularly well-received in Norway, and began to build a loyal audience there through repeated visits.
Russell began to record again, releasing his first album as a solo artist, Heart On A Sleeve, in 1984. Several more albums followed, including Road To Baymon and Poor Man’s Dream. These song collections were in a country-rock vein, although Russell’s version of this musical style was uniquely his own. His emphasis on writing about downtrodden American characters in real-life terms led him back to traditional Western music. Cowboy Real, released by Philo Records in 1991, started Russell in a new artistic direction that lasted for the next several years.
During this period, Russell enjoyed success as a collaborator with other singer/songwriters, most notably folk artist Nanci Griffith and cowboy balladeer Ian Tyson. “Outbound Plane,” a song co-written by Russell and Griffith, became a top ten country hit for singer Suzy Bogguss in 1993. A Russell/Tyson collaboration, the Western-themed “Navajo Rug,” was selected as the 1987 Country Music Association single of the year.
A more unlikely partnership came when Russell joined forces with Barrence Whitfield, a flamboyant R&B vocalist. “He’s sort of a modern Little Richard,” Russell said of Whitfield to Contemporary Musicians. “He wanted to do something country-oriented, so he contacted me, and what we came up with was this real eclectic, good-timey blend of roots music.” The pair released their Hillbilly Voodoo CD on the East Side Digital label in 1993,
Born March 5, 1950, in Los Angeles, CA.
Began performing in 1971; released two albums on Demo Records as part of duo with Patricia Hardin, 1976 and 1978; released first solo album, Heart On A Sleeve, 1984; had hit single as co-writer of Suzy Bogguss single “Outbound Plane,” 1993; collaborated on two albums with singer Barrence Whitfield, 1993 and 1994; signed with Hightone, released Rose of The San Juaquin, 1995; co-produced and performed on Tulare Dust: A Songwriters Tribute To Merle Haggard, 1995; released The Man From God Knows Where, 1999.
Awards: CMA award for Single Of The Year for “Navajo Rug,” 1987; ASCAP Country Award for “Outbound Plane,” 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Hightone Records, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607. Newsletter— Dark Angel, P.O. Box 16083, Shawnee, KS 66203. Website —www.tomrussell.com.
followed by Cowboy Mambo in 1994. Russell joined forces with fellow singer/songwriter Dave Alvin in 1994 to co-produce Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard for Hightone Records. This album featured a number of artists interpreting Haggard’s classic country tunes, including Russell himself. Tulare Dust went on to top the Americana radio format charts. Russell’s association with Hightone continued when he released The Rose Of San Joaquin, a contemporary folk/country album, on that label in 1995.
Yet another rewarding collaboration for Russell during this period was with Canadian singer/songwriter Sylvia Fricker, former wife of Ian Tyson. In addition to co-writing songs with Fricker, he also collaborated with her on And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks, an anthology of quotes by songwriters about various aspects of their craft. Music remained Russell’s main career, and he began working on a major song cycle dealing with American history in the early 1990s. Before this was completed, he released a pair of albums on Hightone featuring re-recordings of earlier songs, The Long Way Around and Song Of The West. From there, he concentrated on the ambitious work that would eventually be released as The Man From God Knows Where in 1999.
As he worked on the project, Russell delved deeper into the stories of his immigrant ancestors from Ireland and Norway. “After reading the diaries of my great grandfathers, the soundscapes and poetic ideas faded, blending into the real voices of my ancestors,” he wrote in an essay included in Hightone press materials. “I read between the lines; added a touch of rhyme. I drew them out.” Several songs dealt with Russell’s father Charlie, a salesman and colorful character who had seen the highs and lows of the American dream during his lifetime. “I couldn’t have written about my father until he passed away in 1997,” he told Contemporary Musicians. “I’d had a lot of resentment towards him, and it enabled me to go back and deal with it. It’s been therapeutic for me as a writer.”
The Man From God Knows Where was recorded in a seventeenth-century baronial home in Norway underthe auspices of a Norwegian record company, KKV. Besides Russell, the cast of featured vocalists on the album included American folk singers Iris DeMent and Dave Van Ronk, Irish artist Delores Keane, and Norwegian performers Sondre Bratland and Kari Bremnes. A sampling of poet Walt Whitman’s voice taken from an 1890s-era wax cylinder recording was also included. Hightone released the album in the United States in March of 1999 to a favorable response. In its review, Atlantic Monthly gave warm praise to Russell, “whose reach is both wide and deep, balancing the grand sweep of history with individual tragedies of his ancestors broken on the frontier. Gary von Tersch of the San Francisco Chronicle felt that the album “should be required listening for every American history student.”
Russell toured actively after The Man From God Knows Where was released, and looked forward to his next recording project. In his Contemporary Musicians interview, he reaffirmed his bond with his audience. “They’re eclectic,” he said. “You can go to one of my concerts and they’ll be quite a few young people who may be discovering Hank Williams or Dave Alvin or Tom Russell, and then there’s the older audience that was into folk music in the ’60s. It’s not a pop audience that’s coming because this is getting a tremendous amount of radio airplay. It’s the people who really want to seek out alternative roots music.”
(with Patricia Hardin) Ring Of Bone and Wax Museum (reissue on one CD), Dark Angel, 1994.
Heart On A Sleeve, Bear Family, 1984.
Cowboy Real, Philo, 1991.
Rose Of The San Joaquin, Hightone, 1995.
The Long Way Around, Hightone, 1997.
Song Of The West, Hightone, 1997.
The Man From God Knows Where, Hightone, 1999.
Tyson, Sylvia, And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks, Arsenal-Pulp Press, 1995.
Atlantic Monthly, April 1999.
Billboard, February 27, 1999.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 1999.
Additional information was obtained from Hightone Records and from a phone interview with Russell in April 1999.