There’s a lot of blowhard swaggering of my own in here,” Tom Russell writes in the afterword to Tough Company. The veteran singer-songwriter is being a little hard on himself. Tough Company is a literary grab-bag with more hits than misses, made up of Charles Bukowski’s letters to him and Russell’s interviews with the celebrated poet plus selections of Russell’s poems, stories and paintings.
Employing blunt, colorful language, Russell shows his knack for storytelling with an eye for detail that recalls Dave Alvin’s Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You, a 1995 collection of poems and stories. Alvin also contributes an illuminating introduction to Tough Company.
“Getting Off Work At The Topless Bar” is a gritty account of a suicide on Vancouver’s skid row, where Russell played early in his career. “He’s missing an eyeball, watch your step,” a cop warns Russell of a man who jumped from a building. “Some Assembly Required” is a lament for being all thumbs at romance. “I can’t put love together,” he writes, “but I am a Master at watching it fall apart.”
Russell displays a softer side with his tributes to Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and legendary folksinger Dave Van Ronk. Tough Company is loosely organized and rambles in spots, but Russell can deliver a message without using his guitar.