An Evening with Tom Russell or Sitting in the Shadows of Greatness –
By Rod Ames
Thad Beckman, Tom Russell, Michael Martin, & Augie Meyers (photo courtesy of Nadine Russell)
As some of you know, last month I had the privilege to interview Tom Russell (www.tomrussell.com). I transcribed the interview, and shared it with the readers here. It was an amazing twenty or so minutes for me, and I was certainly humbled by his willingness to take the time of what is a very busy touring schedule promoting his most recent masterpiece, Blood and Candle Smoke (Shout Factory).
Afterwards, I immediately made plans to see his show when he came to San Antonio. I could not have prepared myself enough for what was to come.
What was to come began to expose itself the other evening, when, while sitting at my computer, I got an instant message from my friend, Dawn Sahm, Doug Sahm’s daughter, inviting my wife and I to join them for dinner some time in the near future. She lives in San Antonio, and we live about seventy-five miles to the North-west; so even though we’re pretty good friends we don’t get to see each other anywhere near often enough.
I told her of my plans to see Tom Russell at Casbeer’s at The Church (www.casbeers.com) there in San Antonio, and she said, in a voice I imagine to be the female version of her Father’s voice, said, “hell man, Barb’s one of my good friends, Chris and me will meet you there at 630 P.M. Sunday. We’ll have dinner and see the show. Who’s Tom Russell?”
I laughed and said, “It’s a date. We’ll see you there.”
So we get down to San Antonio, arriving almost on time, and are sitting on the patio waiting for our friends. Dawn and Chris arrive about five minutes later and we go inside to, what Dawn called her corner, or the “Doug Sahm corner”. When we went inside I immediately understood exactly why it was called “The Doug Sahm Corner”. It was a museum or a shrine the man; one of the greatest musicians to come out of San Antonio, or for that matter, Texas. It’s no secret; I’m one of his biggest fans.
Literally everything on two walls of the restaurant down stairs from the concert hall was entirely about Dough Sahm. There was a huge oil painting of Sir Doug done in sepia tones that absolutely captured the spirit of the man. You could see the mischievousness in the smile on his face with his chin resting on his crossed arms.
Dawn took us around pointing out every detail and explaining all the stories that resided with every photograph. It was all so endearing to hear the excitement in her voice. She obviously loved her Father very much, but at a whole different level than any of us could ever imagine. What a childhood he must have provided for his kids. Seeing her light up when talking about him helped me understand slightly, how much of an inspiration he must have been in their upbringing and who she and her siblings were to become.
We sat down at the table and in walked Hector Saldana, the driving force behind a band, whose album I just reviewed, The Krayolas (www.thekrayolas.com). He had just gotten through playing at the Annual Rock ‘N Roll Marathon in San Antonio, and took the time to pop in and say hello and thank me for the kind words I had written about him and his band. I was humbled by this man taking the time out of what had been an extremely demanding day for him. I became even more humbled when I found out he was a music writer for the San Antonio Express, the major newspaper out of San Antonio.
While we were sitting at our table and I was taking my first bite out of a Casbeer’s Buckshot Ball, which are breaded and fried meatballs stuffed with jalapenos and cheese and are served with a salsa ranch dip and are apparently a mainstay at “The Church” (Remember, this is Texas. We fry everything, even butter).
Dawn looks up from her small plate of these deep fried tasty treats and says, “Oh my god! Uncle Augie!”
My jaw dropped. I’m sure it made a thunderous crashing sound as my chin violently hit the table, rattling the dishes and silverware that were scattered about. It was none other than Augie Meyers. One of the co-founders of The Sir Douglas Quintet, the man who made the Vox Continental organ a household name, the man who helped to define SDQ and the Texas Tornados along with Doug Sahm, Freddie Fender, and Flaco Jimenez. A man who had stood with greatness and made greatness even greater; A man whom I had admired for so many decades was standing before me and sat down at our table! Yes! I not only was having dinner with my good friends, Dawn and Chris, I was breaking bread with one of my musical heroes, Augie Meyers and his lovely wife, Sarah.
As you may remember when this story began, Dawn had asked, “Who is Tom Russel?” Augie helped me out with the answer.
He said, “Oh hell Dawn, you know Tom Russell. We (The Texas Tornados) did one of his songs.”
“Oh yeah, which one?” she asked.
“St. Olav’s Gate”, Augie replied.
Dawn just stared at the man; she referred to so fondly as her “Step Dad”, just nodding her head. There was so much going through her head. She had grown up with people, like Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Mr. Meyers, Flaco Jimenez, Freddie Fender, and so many more great musicians. It was hard for her to remember every single one of them.
Come to find out, Augie was a special guest for Mr. Russell’s show along with Michael Martin (www.myspace.com/michaelmartintx), mandolin player extraordinaire.
We went upstairs to “The Chruch” where the audience sits in actual church pews. It was a small acoustically designed room, which was geared for an intimate experience with the artist. Tom had Thad Beckman (www.thadbeckman.com), from Portland, Oregon with him to play guitar.
If you have never heard Mr. Beckman play, you have really been missing out. He played a 1935 Gibson that certainly showed age, but like a fine wine had gotten better over time as its tone was perfect. Mr. Beckman’s left hand glided effortlessly up and down the neck, playing whatever style was demanded by Tom Russell. Whether it was Western, blues, or flat-top picking, it didn’t matter. He could master anything presented. He could not be stumped. Not that anyone would try. Anyone in the audience could instantly recognize Mr. Beckman as a master of his craft.
Mr. Russell played nearly all, if not all of his songs from Blood and Candle Smoke and he played them all as if he were playing them for the first time. He has been on tour with this particular batch of songs for awhile now, but if you didn’t know better you would have thought he had just written them. Only a true professional can pull that one off. And professional he was, or perhaps master is a better word.
At any rate, there we were, two-hundred or so souls listening to this great singer-songwriter showing off his babies, his songs, to us. We all knew they were not new anymore but yet they all seemed so fresh. Even when he reached back in his past and performed “Pugilist at 59”, or the fore mentioned, “St. Olav’s Gate”. They had a fresh new sound to them. The artist loved his songs as much as we did, even more. Otherwise, how could he have accomplished this seemingly impossible task?
For one thing, the songs themselves withstand the test of time merely because they are all so damned good.
Here’s an example.
You saw a movie twenty or thirty years ago. You remembered how much you laughed at it, or how much you cried over it, or how much it scared you. You want to share this experience with your children. They are sure to admire and respect you all the more for having given this little piece of your self to them. You rave about the film as they roll their little eyes all the way to the back of their pointed little heads, but to humor you, they reluctantly sit down and watch this very special film with you.
As it turns out, the film you had thought was so good wasn’t as good as you remembered it. It wasn’t as funny, sad, or as scary as you had remembered it being. If that were not bad enough, your sweet children are now immensely upset with you for wasting their valuable time, when they could have been taking “Grand Theft Auto” on their Play Station 3 or Xbox, to the next level of murder and mayhem, but instead they were made to sit and watch some “dumb movie”. You’ve lost their respect and you are, in reality, disappointed in yourself, because the movie wasn’t as good as you had thought. What happened?
It failed the test of time.
A true artist has vision to see his or her work will last and withstand the test of time. Do we ever get tired of looking at a Van Gough or a Rembrandt? No. Why? Because the artist has great vision and possesses the knowledge that for him or her to endure, he or she must pass the test of time. The spectator or listener in this case, must never grow weary of his or her work.
Tom Russell accomplishes this and then some.
You get the idea.
He finished the first set and we took a little break to get up and stretch our legs. We were going to need it. The first set was merely a warm up to the second half.
Tom Russell and Thad Beckman played one or two more songs then invited Michael Martin and his mandolin up to help out on several songs along with Augie Meyers and his accordion.
On the old Rolling Stones song, “The Spider and the Fly”, I thought I was going to need a metaphorical fire extinguisher to put out the imaginary fire coming out of Mr. Martin’s mandolin. It was a “scorching” version of the song, and the quartet on stage took the song to an entirely new dimension. The song itself caught me completely off guard and most likely created the biggest grin that was to reside on my face this evening. Mr. Meyers’ accordion accompaniment was a special compliment to the event and it was clear Augie was enjoying himself.
Tom Russell and Thad Beckman finished the show and left the stage. The crowd stayed on their feet chanting the familiar, “More, more, more”! Until, finally Mr. Russell and Mr. Beckman returned to the stage and endeared us with two more tunes from Mr. Russell’s amazing body of work, “Blue Wing” and “Mineral Wells”. The encore was truly a fitting end to an over the top and delightfully surreal evening for us all.
If I were to rate Tom Russell’s performance in stars it would effortlessly earn no less than 5 out of 5 of the bright shiny objects. I don’t like to do that though. It’s a cop out and could never truly represent what I had witnessed.
Just do this.
The next time you see Tom Russell and friends playing within a hundred mile radius of you, do yourself a favor and go see him. He is truly a master at his craft and casts a giant shadow.