By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

April 17, 2003


Singer Tom Russell is on the phone from his home in El Paso, Texas, preparing for a tour that will stop here at Off Broadway, one of his favorite venues, on Friday.

And he's surprised, and maybe even a bit annoyed, by the suggestion that the tone of his new CD, "Modern Art," is dark.

After all, it was his 2001 album, "Borderland," that was about the end of his longtime relationship, despite its largely up-tempo mix of folk and electric Tex-Mex sounds.

And as Russell says in his Web diary (at "I decided to abandon the 'I can't get over my last girlfriend she was sick and crazy and I hope she rots, besides she ran off with my Slim Whitman records' routine, and move on to more important, and happier, matters."

But having disagreed with the suggestion, he says: "Well, dark is fine with me. The last one ('Borderland') was during a real dark period -- I was going through that breakup. (On the new one,) some are dark songs, but they're not necessarily about me. Well, 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' is a real personal one."

"Wolf," featuring the beautiful acoustic guitar of longtime bandmate Andrew Hardin, deals with the loss of innocence as well as love ("Fairy tales are funny little things unless they're happening to you").

OK, then what about the song about Mickey Mantle? Or the deeply affecting "The Dutchman," about a wife grieving for her husband as he falls victim to dementia?

Or the ones involving dead or dying songwriters? "American Hotel" is about Stephen ("Oh Susannah") Foster, who died penniless in the New York hotel of the song's title. It was written by Carl Brouse, a writing partner from Russell's early days who died late last year in New England.

And "Crucifix in a Death Hand" is verse by the late Beat poet Charles Bukowski, set to music by Russell, about the ruination of Russell's hometown, Los Angeles. It closes with a verse from "Carmelita" by Warren Zevon, another chronicler of LA's dark side, who suffers from inoperable cancer.

But Russell says he doesn't buy "the dead routine: It either resonates as a piece of art or it doesn't. I have no preoccupation with dead or alive, just with good writing."

And that's what this is all about: modern art ("there's two damn things that'll break your heart/modern love and modern art").

"It's the art that's dead," he says. "Country music is completely dead, put it in the ground. It's the demise (in the music and radio businesses) of great artists like (Johnny) Cash and (Merle) Haggard and (George) Jones and all the really good people, into flimsy, poorly written pop music.

"That's death. Not writing about Stephen Foster. I'm more concerned with writing about that than I am with writing about the war (with Iraq)," he says, laughing. "There, that shows how out there I am!

"When I grew up in the '60s, I heard Buck Owens and Bob Dylan on the same night on the same radio station. It was, like, wow, two sort of hillbilly, cool-sounding voices on the radio at the same time. It wasn't till later the record companies and radio stepped in and ruined it. When they figured out that country was too twangy, too blue collar, too much about drinking and screwing and cheating -- when it didn't cross over to the white middle class, they made it cross over with watered-down pop."

There's nothing watered down about "Modern Art," which features three duets with pal Nanci Griffith. It's about evenly split between originals and covers -- more covers than usual, Russell says, because he didn't want to fill it up with more morose songs about his ex-girlfriend.

And like its predecessors, from "Poor Man's Dream" in the '80s to "The Man from God Knows Where" in the '90s, it contains vivid portraits of people and places, some real, some not, done as what Russell calls "folk-based country that has an edge to it."

"The Kid from Spavinaw," about Baseball Hall of Famer Mantle, is done in the slugger's voice and includes the Mantle quote: "If I'd known I was gonna live this long I'd have taken better care of myself."

"That Mantle line is so very human, so revealing," Russell says. "I find that very moving. That song is built around his love for his father. That was the central story there. I'm not talking so much about baseball as I am about Oklahoma and his old man pitching to him a thousand times every night."

Russell wrote "Muhammad Ali" about another of his heroes, set to a calypso beat. When Ali was asked why he wouldn't fight in the Vietnam War, the champ said: "No Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger.'"

"I had this image of Ali in the movie 'When We Were Kings,'" Russell says. "He had such a great presence. I was also intrigued with that line; he said it, and I (used it), too."

"The Dutchman," by Michael Smith, is a song Russell says took him 20 years to feel comfortable recording.

"The problem is always giving a song a decent reading without sounding overly poetic or maudlin," he says. "It's hard to do. However good I am now, I wasn't as good a song interpreter five years ago. It comes from experience, aging, learning how to sing inside the song. I find it very touching, the guy's got Alzheimer's or some kind of senility, and there's still a loving connection there."

Russell and St. Louis also have a connection. He gives much of the credit to KDHX-FM (88.1), one of the few U.S. stations that plays alternative country and folk, singling out Larry Weir and Ed Becker of "Songwriters Showcase."

"I do well in the Midwest, anyway," he says. "I love the Midwest. My people come from Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin. The people have remained unjaded; you can still find good record stores and bookstores."

He also enjoys Off Broadway, where, with Dave Alvin and Katy Moffatt, he recorded the nine live tracks on "The Long Way Around" (1997).

"It's the right sort of club for me," Russell says. "I like working with an audience that has had a drink if it wants one, and I like being close to an audience. And I like the honesty of audiences in the Midwest."

Although Russell bristles again at an attempt to put a tag on his music -- back in the '80s it was progressive country, now it's Americana or folk -- he says he's proud of the role he and Alvin and others played in the nurturing of the Americana market with the release of the "Tulare Dust" CD, a tribute to Haggard, in 1994. That CD had considerable influence both here and in Europe.

"I'm not sloughing that off," he says, "but it doesn't influence what I write.

"People see my guitar case and ask me what kind of music I play. I have no idea. I just hope it resonates in people's hearts."

Selected discography

"Borderland" (2001): Besides the songs about Russell's breakup, this CD includes "California Snow," written with Dave Alvin, about a burned-out Border Patrol officer who discovers a Mexican couple who tried to cross into the United States during winter. She didn't make it. It's about as perfect as a song can be. Alvin's version appears on his CD "Blackjack David."

"The Man from God Knows Where" (1998): An account of Russell's ancestors' coming to America.

"Rose of the San Joaquin" (1994): Features Russell's writing with Dave Alvin, Peter Case and Ian Tyson.

"Poor Man's Dream" (1989): One of Russell's strongest albums, it includes the original version of "Navajo Rug," a success for Jerry Jeff Walker; the achingly beautiful "Blue Wing"; "Outbound Plane," written with Nanci Griffith; "Walkin' on the Moon," written with Katy Moffatt; "Bergenfield," a true story of teen suicide; the anthemic "Heart of a Working Man"; and the Vietnam vet salute "Veteran's Day."