Tom Russell is nothing if not a dedicated advocate for creative Americana. Just two years ago he released “Aztec Jazz” , a compendium of his songs preformed live with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. He has now created a massive opus that is no less than a cowboy folk opera, treating the genre much as “Tommy” played with rock back in 1975.
“The Rose of Roscrae” tells the story of a young Irishman who comes to America in the 1880s and heads out west to become a cowboy. It features in some form or another huge range of Americana artists from past and present, including Joe Ely, Lead Belly, Tex Ritter, Gretchen Peters, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Dobson and The McCrary Sisters.
The songs range from Russell’s own poignant songs to snippets of classics such as “Red River Valley” and “Desperados”.
Like much of Russell’s work (think “St Olav’s Gate”) the tone is bittersweet, the angst of an immigrant stuggling with one foot firmly in the New World but the other still draggin in the Old. (Historically, it is a theme that has been around for some time and is explored famously in Dvorjak’s Symphony No 9 “From The New World.)
Three back-to-back songs in Act Two (the second CD), encapsulate this.
First comes “Damien”, a Russell ballad in which the singer asks the saintly leper priest if he too was debilitated by homesickness. This is followed by the wonderful Peters and Anan Gabriel singing “Guadaloupe/Valetine del la Sierra”, a haunting song about the realisation that as night falls that there is nowhere left to run. Then, we get a short Tex-Mex hymn from Russell – “Poor Mother Mexico” – about everyone being so far from home.
It is, in effect, a paen to Western Americana. And it works.