Tom Russell on ‘Arctic Explorer’ Bob Dylan and More
Tom Russell has recorded more than 25 albums — including many critically acclaimed ones — so it’s surprising to hear him declare his new release, Folk Hotel, his best one.
“I spent a lot of time with the songs, isolated in a farm town in Switzerland,” explains Russell whose wife, Nadine, is Swiss. “I’ve finally learned how to record so it sounds like me, and I’ve worked hard on my singing and guitar playing. I sat down in the studio with an old Gibson J-45 guitar and recorded the basics live. So, in your front room, it’s the same Tom Russell you get at the concerts.
“It’s been a long, learning journey,” adds Russell, who also lives outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I recorded the Ian and Sylvia tribute record Play One More — The Songs of Ian and Sylvia last November with just two guitars, and it pulled me back to my roots and influences. So, in a way, Folk Hotel was the next step. Starting over, getting it right. I didn’t come right out of the box making legendary records 40 years ago, so it’s rewarding that my last 10 or so have reached wider audiences.”
At the Turning Point, a tiny Hudson River club in Piermont, New York, I caught Russell’s late show last month and was enraptured by the lyrics and imagery in all his songs, including two on Folk Hotel, “The Last Time I Saw Hank” and “The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence.” Accompanied by hot Italian guitarist Max De Bernardi, Russell delivered a powerful and often witty performance filled with stories of his encounters with Johnny Cash, David Letterman, and others. It was quite evident that Russell, whose paintings are for sale in various galleries, is a national treasure whose music should be better known throughout America.
Folk Hotel includes a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” sung with Joe Ely.
“It is my favorite Bob Dylan song,” Russell says. “It might be, along with Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso,’ the song that drew me to live in El Paso for 15 years. I love the opening line — one of the great opening lines — about being ‘lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too.’ And, believe me, I’ve been lost in Juarez a few times, right at the start of the drug wars, when the bullets flew. Joe Ely has been a friend for a long time. I loved his last record, which had sort of a border feel. He has the right voice — an earthy West Texas voice — to blend with mine and sing this great song. He’s been there.”
Russell, a Los Angeles native, recalls seeing Dylan in L.A. in 1963 and 1964.
“I snuck in and gave him a telegram at the Santa Monica Civic Center, and he later asked where the nearest liquor store was. His car followed our car for a few blocks. We stopped at a light, Dylan jumped out and danced around our car, then got back in his and sped off — into history. He’s mentioned that he digs my song ‘Gallo del Cielo.’ He heard Joe Ely’s version.”
Russell was friends with Dave Van Ronk, Dylan’s mentor during his early folk music days in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“I spent many a memorable night with Dave Van Ronk at his apartment in the West Village — long dinners with lots of stories and songs, cheap white wine, and cigars,” Russell says. “He also gave me a great walking tour of the Village once and pointed out all the bars where Dylan Thomas drank and eventually sank. Dave and I also toured the big halls of Europe with Nanci Griffith and Odetta, so every night was special. He was kind enough to appear on my record The Man From God Knows Where and played ‘The Outcaste.’ He tore it up.”
Russell says Ian and Sylvia Tyson were his big influences, and Dylan, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were his heroes.
“They’re great singer-songwriters who changed the face of our music,” Russell says. “Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack were the best men at our wedding in Nevada — a thrill. I also got to sing with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and get to know them. And Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. His catalog speaks for itself. He certainly deserved the Nobel Prize for literature.”
I ask Russell, whose favorite Dylan record is Highway 61 Revisited, to expand on his love of Dylan’s music and lyrics.
“What can you say in one paragraph?” he responds. “I think it took a lot of confidence, wisdom, deep knowledge of folklore, and sheer bravery to do what he’s done and written in spite of all the boos throughout the years. He’s an Arctic explorer. He always followed his own path. The catalog stands alone. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that ‘you must push as hard as the age that pushes against you,’ and Dylan has pushed the modern lyric into new territories.”
The concerts that most influenced Russell as a musician were Ian and Sylvia performances in California in the 1960s and a Dylan show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965. The Dylan show was the best performance by any musician he has ever seen.
“He sang ‘Desolation Row,’ and it changed my life,” Russell says. “It kept unfolding, and I couldn’t believe it. I was being kicked out of the box seat I’d snuck into and led up the aisle by the ushers and hanging on every word.”
Like Dylan’s many consecutive masterpieces, Russell is on a long creative roll. Among his triumphs are 2015’s The Rose of Roscrae, 2011’s Mesabi, and 2008’s One to the Heart, One to the Head, a duo album with Gretchen Peters that captures a magical south-of-the-border vibe akin to Dylan’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack.
“I seem to have gone back to my folk roots on Folk Hotel, and the next stop might be my hard country roots,” Russell says. “My wife and I heard Bill Kirchen singing and playing his telecaster in a bar in Austin one afternoon recently, and it blew our minds! Raw passion. The real deal. Bill got me up to sing ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues.’ But, Lord, that Bakersfield sound, I grew up on it. I’d like to delve back into that with some kick-ass lyrics and am working on several songs with that in mind.”