from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Thomas George "Tom" Russell (born 5 March 1950 in Los Angeles) is an American singer-songwriter. Although most identified with the Texas Country music tradition, his music also incorporates elements of folk, Tex-Mex and the cowboy music of the American West. His songs have been recorded by artists such as Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin, Suzy Bogguss and more. In addition to his music, he is also a painter of folk art and has published a novel and a book of songwriting quotes co-authored with Sylvia Tyson.
Russell graduated from the University of California with a degree in criminology and taught school in Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War. He also lived in Spain and Norway and played music at a circus in Puerto Rico. He began his musical career in earnest in the early 1970s in Vancouver, playing strip bars. Later he relocated to Texas and formed a band with singer-pianist Patricia Hardin. They recorded two albums, but split in 1979, at which point Russell drifted out of the music industry.
While working as a taxi driver in Queens, Russell met guitarist Andrew Hardin (no relation to Patricia). After hearing his songs, Hardin convinced him that they should form a new band. Shortly after this, Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead was a passenger in Russell's cab. Russell sang him his song Gallo Del Cielo. An impressed Hunter invited Russell and Hardin first to join him on stage at New York's Bitter End, and then to become his regular opening act. Hardin remained Russell's full-time side-man until April of 2006.
In the 1980s Russell made four albums credited to the Tom Russell Band, which featured Hardin and accordion maestro Fats Kaplin. These albums blended elements of folk, country and rock, and often featured songs inspired by the American Southwest, blue collar American life, and by events from his own colourful life (for instance the track Road to Bayamon, a regular concert favourite, draws on his experiences playing in Puerto Rico). His storytelling approach was also showcased in songs such as Haley's Comet, which has also been recorded by co-writer Dave Alvin and tells of the sad last days of Bill Haley.
In the 1990s Russell made a number of solo albums, collaborated with blues singer Barrence Whitfield on two albums, and also recorded an acoustic album mixing new material with his favourite cowboy themed songs. His recording included guest appearances from such artists as Chris Gaffney and Dave Alvin. He also saw a version of his song Outbound Plane become a Top Ten country hit for Suzy Bogguss. However, his most significant album of the 1990s was the 1999 "folk opera" The Man From God Knows Where.
Drawing on the music of Norway and Ireland in addition to American folk and country, the album took the form of a song cycle tracing the journeys of Russell's ancestors from Europe to America and the struggles they encountered there. Recorded in Norway, near the spot where his great grandfather was born in 1847, the album features singers such as Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane and Dave Van Ronk playing the roles of Russell's various ancestors and telling their stories. The title came from the epitaph of another Tom Russell, an Irish activist executed in 1803.
Russell's albums in the 21st century have been heavily influenced by his current home city, El Paso. Albums such as Borderland feature a strong Tex-Mex influence and feature songs of life on both sides of the border.
In 2005 Russell released Hotwalker, the second part of a planned "Americana trilogy" (the first part being "The Man From God Knows Where"). It was another conceptual work largely inspired by his correspondence with author Charles Bukowski. Subtitled "A Ballad for Gone America", the album features songs and spoken word pieces, many of the latter delivered by another friend of Bukowski, circus midget Little Jack Horton. The sampled voices of Lenny Bruce and Edward Abbey are also heard on an album which takes the form of a musical collage lamenting the passing of the America of Russell's childhood and the Beat generation.
In addition to working on new music, Russell also exhibits his original artwork and organises an annual trans-Canadian "music train" featuring workshops and live concerts aboard a vintage long-distance streamline train. This train trek was depicted in Russell's 2005 concert/documentary, "Hearts on the Line", produced by Canyon Productions, which features a concert with Russell and Andrew Hardin videotaped at Capilano College in Vancouver as well as behind the scenes footage of the music train experience.
In 2006, Russell released Love and Fear, a collection of original songs that were inspired by the highs and lows of his relationships with women. This was followed in 2007 by "Wounded Heart of America", a collection of Tom Russell songs covered by such artists as Joe Ely, Suzy Boguss, Dave Alvin, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others. Two new songs by Russell are also included on the album, "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall" and "The Death of Jimmy Martin."
2008 finds Russell writing, painting, touring and working on a documentary film project called California Bloodlines.