Tom Russell brings the mythic and contemporary West into collision.
Thursday, October 21, 2004
For his latest release, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, singer/songwriter Tom Russell revisits a world he discovered while growing up in Los Angeles. It’s a place populated by card sharks, horse thieves, bull riders and gunslingers. It’s a place where stories about these characters are rendered with lots of detail. It’s Western music.
Since Russell believes phone interviews are “hogwash,” I communicate via e-mail with the songwriter, who has had his songs covered by American music legends like Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and Dave Alvin.
Russell says the first time he heard Western music was when he listened to Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle” at the age of six. He remembers that when he first heard the tune he found it “dark and gruesome.”
Russell believes that modern-day Western music is not as impressive. “Western and cowboy music was very much a part of Country Western until the 1970s, when Nashville watered down everything and crossed it over to white, middle-class golf players,” he says. “Since then, partner, it’s been mighty fucked-up.”
With Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, Russell attempts to revitalize the genre with covers of classic Western tunes like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” and new Western-like originals, including the accordion-driven“Tonight We Ride.”
The album’s centerpiece is an almost 10-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” with fellow songwriters Joe Ely and Eliza Gilkyson providing the voices for some of the song’s characters. It plays out like a combination Western song and theatrical production. “It’s a Western, Shakespearean, cabaret show,” Russell says. “It cries out for male and female actors, because that’s what the tale is all about.”
But the album is not all about the mythical Old West. “The Ballad of Edward Abbey” describes the environmentalist’s travels through the desert and ends with the wish that he return from the grave with a chain saw to obliterate ugly tract housing in the West.
Russell—the songwriter behind Western classics like “Gallo del Cielo” and “Navajo Rug”—is working on a slew of projects vastly different from Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, including a book of correspondences with writer Charles Bukowski, a double album dedicated to all his former girlfriends, featuring songs about fear and love, and an album titled Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski and a Ballad For Gone America.
Hotwalker is about a vanishing breed. “It deals with all the writers who influenced me in L.A. in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the music,” Russell says. “It’s all gone, man. America is a land peopled by domesticated animals. No novelists or poets. Gone.”