Over the course of the last forty years, Tom Russell has evolved into arguably the greatest singer/songwriter currently writing and releasing albums. While many of his contemporaries (Russell is in his mid-sixties) are happy releasing compilations and performing nostalgia tours, Russell redefines Americana music and breaks through new barriers with each album and gig. Some of his recent masterpieces include “Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski & A Ballad for Gone,” an audio collage of stories and songs about the Beat Generation, featuring recordings of Bukowski, Edward Abbey, Lenny Bruce, Little Jack Horton, Jack Kerouac, Buck Owens, and Dave Van Ronk. “Love and Fear,” a song cycle about the death of the American Dream, as played out in suburbia and on the US/Mexican border. “Blood and Candle Smoke,” a collection of songs inspired by stories throughout Russell’s life, focuses on his time spent teaching in Ibadan, Nigeria during the Biafran War.
His latest release, “Mesabi” may be his most ambitious (both musically and thematically) to date. Sections of the record examine Russell’s childhood heroes (Bob Dylan, James Dean, Sterling Hayden, and Elizabeth Taylor, among many others) through a lens of grown-up disillusionment, and a song cycle on the second half explores modern-day life in Juarez and on both sides of the Rio Grande. Lucinda Williams, Calexico, Van Dyke Parks, and a host of others appear. Two songs that help shape the backbone of the record are “Roll the Credits” and “Road to Nowhere,” both of which appear extensively in Monte Hellman’s latest film Road to Nowhere, along with a handful of songs from Russell’s earlier albums. Check out my in-depth interview with Hellman about the film and Russell’s work here. Russell is currently hard at work preparing for a night of music he’s hosting at McCabe’s in Los Angeles on April 13th, featuring Russell, his friend and hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Jon Langford. Russell then plays several US dates, before touring in Europe in May and returning to play shows all over California in August and September. Interviewing Russell has been a long-held dream of mine (I’ve been an incredible fan since the 2004 Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Oregon), and Russell was able to take some time off from prepping his next tour to answer a few questions of mine about writing and crafting “Mesabi” and the songs that appear in Road to Nowhere.
Jackson Truax: How did Hellman approach you, to use your old songs and write new music for Road to Nowhere? How familiar were you with all his films up to that point?
Tom Russell: I was familiar with Two-Lane Blacktop, and had known Monte had done the controversial movie [adapted from] Charles Willeford’s novel: Cockfighter, because I was a Willeford fan. My wife said “somebody” kept calling from “Monte somebody’s” office a few years ago, but I didn’t catch the connection, until finally I asked, “You mean Monte Hellman?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Hell, he’s a legend!” Monte and I chatted for quite awhile via email. He said he was a big fan of my music. I was very honored. Monte is the real deal. I’m very proud to have worked with him and he’s a helluva nice man. We’ve shared margaritas a few times and we actually saw the first take of the movie in a screening in Monte’s bedroom in Hollywood. From there to the premiere at The Egyptian Theater it was quite a ride.
JT: You said on-stage on the “Mesabi” tour that you had to read Steven Gaydos’ script ten times before being able to write the theme song for Road to Nowhere. You also said that it’s easy to listen to the song and hear where the story got away from you. How did you approach the idea of writing the song, and what was its process of coming into being?
TR: I didn’t really get the gist of the plot after I’d read the script. I finally realized I wasn’t supposed to “get it.” You can watch the movie ten times and take away something different each time. Sort of like Antonioni’s Blowup, which has always been one of my favorites. There are a lot of layers between appearance and so-called “reality.” It’s like a long Bob Dylan song…not so much about the plot – more like a circus of scenes and jagged ends. My song catches a bit of that. Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is….Mr. Jones.
JT: The version of the song “Road to Nowhere” in the film is very different from the version that appears on the record “Mesabi.” “Roll the Credits” was your other song that was prominently featured in the film, but an earlier version had already appeared as a bonus track on “The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day.” What was the journey both of these songs had from inception through what’s in Road to Nowhere and ultimately the arrangements we hear on “Mesabi?”
TR: Monte preferred the rough demo of the theme song… It had a raw quality to it. I wanted to try another version and I recorded one with Calexico in Tucson. A different, bigger feel. I like them both. “Roll the Credits” was not really finished when it appeared on the “Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day.” I threw it on at the last minute as a sort of bonus. But the more I sang the song, the more I liked it, so I polished it up again for the new album, because it fit the themes of Hollywood actors – James Dean, Liz Taylor, Bobby Driscoll, Ukulele Ike and all the characters on the new album: “Mesabi.”
JT: You said in a radio interview for “Blood and Candle Smoke” that you had undergone an extensive process in writing that collection of songs, a process of making sure that every song on the album was one you’d be happy singing for the rest of your life. How do you ensure that when writing a song? How was that process manifest in crafting any of the songs – old and/or new – that appear in Road to Nowhere?
TR: I think Hemingway called it: “the built-in shit-detector.” The more you write, the more you realize when you’re bullshitting, or saying something you don’t really feel, or just being clever and rhyming words. Somebody said: “words that come from the heart enter the heart.” I think it was the rabbi Akiva. We have an obligation, as artists, to be truthful to ourselves, no matter what road it leads us down. So I try to be harder and more ruthless in my craft – the longer I work on it. These last two records hold up for me.
Filed under: LiC Interview