By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


March 3, 2005

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell has had one of his best runs, a four-year period of three well-received CDs, popular performance-schmoozefest train trips in Canada and two appearances on TV with David Letterman.

If Russell is not quite an insider, in mainstream terms, he's as close as he's ever been. But he doesn't feel like an insider -- indeed, he says, he doesn't want to be one. And his new project, "Hotwalker," will confound the expectations of those expecting another "Borderland" (2001) -- a Tex-Mex-fueled study of relationships -- or "Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs" (2004) -- a collection of cowboy songs.

"Hotwalker" does, however, bear a kind of psychic connection to "Modern Art" (2003), songs that looked at athletes, poets and songwriters in popular culture, including blue-collar poet Charles Bukowski.

"Hotwalker" is a mesmerizing story of outsider culture in America, seen through the prism of Russell's youth in 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles and the words of, among others, Bukowski, folksingers Dave Van Ronk and Woody Guthrie, environmental activist and writer Edward Abbey, and a character named Little Jack Horton, a carnival midget and world-class ranter.

Part spoken word, part musical, "Hotwalker" takes the listener on a tour of bars, coffeehouses, carnival sideshows, border dives and revival tents of a time and place that no longer exist in a country that eats its rebels and spits them out as moneymaking icons.

The title refers to the lowest job at the racetrack, the guy who cools down hot horses by walking them. Its subtitle is "Charles Bukowski and a Ballad for Gone America."

Russell, 55, will be talking about some of these outsider voices when he plays Off Broadway on Monday night with his longtime bandmate, guitarist Andrew Hardin, who also has a new CD, "Blue Acoustic."

"They were peculiar individual voices who said what was on their minds," Russell, on the phone from his home in El Paso, Texas, says of the lines that unite these outsiders. "That's lacking right now. They didn't toe a particular line. They created art in their own way, and they're linked in that respect.

"We live in a dead (expletive) culture, and nothing inspiring is happening. I hate to be so blunt. We don't have any songwriters now, painters or big-league journalists. We have Dylan still around, who's survived in spite of a culture that's killed these kinds of voices."

On "Hotwalker," we hear these voices, backed by music ranging from Tex-Mex to cool jazz, speaking from the grave. Bukowski reads his poem "On the Hustle"; Lenny Bruce performs "Marriage, Divorce and Motels." Jack Kerouac, with Steve Allen on piano, delivers "October in the Railroad Earth." And Van Ronk performs, and then stars in a hilarious Russell memoir of a night spent on the great folksinger's couch. Little Jack's contributions include his tale of stealing a train with Bukowski, a prank Russell says was reported in the newspapers as "Train Goes to Pacoima by Itself."

And there's Russell music, too, including "Grapevine," a Bakersfield meets Tex-Mex story of Okie migration to California.

Russell was that close to becoming what he so disdains today. He holds a master's degree in criminology and has one long-out-of-print mystery novel to his credit. He even taught school in Biafra on a $1,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant. But the academic life and, especially, his fellow academics were not for him.

Russell says he considers himself an outsider, too, and always did.

"I've just come to terms with it late in life," he says. "Way back when, I never felt part of anything. I walked through it all, when I went to Catholic school and played on the football team. But I never felt part of it. I always was a daydreamer. I was always reading the Beats and listening to Dylan. But I didn't act on it till later, and I'm glad I did."

Bukowski, who died at age 74 in 1994, is the particular inspiration for "Hotwalker." Russell's first exposure to Bukowski came in the late '60s. Russell had just gotten out of high school and was going to college when he discovered Bukowski's column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," in Open City, an LA underground newspaper.

Russell collected about 40 of the columns and later gave them to Bukowski, who hadn't saved any of the old papers.

"He was so pleased, we began to correspond," Russell says. "I corresponded with him from the late '60s into the '90s." Those letters form the core of "Tough Company," a book of Russell's poetry scheduled to be published this month by Mystery Island's Black Shark Press. "Hotwalker" was released Tuesday.

Later this year, Russell is hoping to release "Love and Fear," a collection of love songs, that will make 2005 one of his busiest years.

"I'll tell you what," Russell says. "About eight months ago, I quit drinking -- just to see what it was like -- and broke up with a woman. I wanted to make a big change in my life and focus on these projects. I didn't want to jump into another disastrous relationship. So I'm spending a year getting my business totally out there on the rails and running."