Tom Russell: Flecked in the type of grit that you can only pick up in US heartland

Tom Russell: Flecked in the type of grit that you can only pick up in US heartland
Tom Russell

TOM Russell was recently thrilled to receive a package in the post from his old friend, Bob Dylan. Dylan had his people send his fellow songwriter a case of his new Heaven’s Door whiskey. Wrapped around the bottles were the lyrics to ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, stylised so that it seemed Dylan had himself scribbled all over the printed words with a pen.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dylan’s journey,” says Russell, a troubadour whose music is, as with Dylan’s, flecked in the grit of the American heartland. “But that journey is not mine. You have to create your own way.”

He and Dylan crossed paths early on. Russell was still a teenager living in Santa Monica when Dylan rolled in to play the local theatre in 1963. On that particular evening, Russell and some friends waited for Dylan’s car because they wanted him to autograph their harmonica boxes. Right on cue, Dylan’s car pulled up and down rolled the window: “Hey, kid, where’s the nearest liquor store?” went a gnarly voice.

One of Russell’s companions drove and, having followed the teens to the desired destination, Dylan got out and danced around their car. It reads like a scene from a great American novel. So do many edited highlights from the life of Russell, who comes to Ireland this month for a tour that includes a November 13 date at Ballymaloe Grainstore in East Cork.

He has variously worked at a carnival in Puerto Rico, was a teacher in Nigeria at the height of the Biafra War and, with his music career established, was invited up on stage by Johnny Cash.

Cash’s enthusiasm comes as little surprise. Across more than 25 albums, the now 72-year-old has variously celebrated and interrogated America’s idea of itself. He is both a myth-maker and a deconstructor of mythology. Russell’s songs blend folk, rock, and the genre sometimes referred to as “cowboy” music. If he has a mission it is to psychoanalyse the real United States, not the politically divided caricature we know from our news bulletins and twittered feeds.

“I live in Switzerland part of the time. People outside of America have a very narrow view of the place — the same way people have a narrow view of Ireland. You can’t really know America until you drive across the country and talk to people — real people. Generally they are good and hard-working. Courteous, friendly… if you have a flat tyre they will help out.”

As with the genres to which he has devoted himself, Russell’s roots go back to Ireland. American folk is partly derived from Celtic immigrant traditions. Russell himself has family in Tipperary and has released two Irish-themed records, The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and The Rose of Roscrae (2015).

“My aunt Mary in Templemore lived to be about 94. I’m deeply into folk and cowboy music. You can trace a lot of the melodies back to English and Irish and Scottish and Welsh folk songs. I’ve always been deeply committed to the history of the music.”

In 2006 he released an EP titled Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall? The title track recounted the true story of a man living along the southern US border who built a wall to keep the immigrants out — using immigrant labour. A minor talking point at the time, it has for obvious reasons now become a hit on social media.

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“I was invited onto David Letterman but they didn’t want me to do that song. But I know David pretty well so I was able to do it. Some people liked it, some didn’t. I got some hate mail. Because of the current administration and the immigrant thing it has taken on a new life. That’s fine with me but I try not to get involved. I have a huge mixed audience, from cowboys who are conservative to liberals. I tell the story from the angle of one guy... and try to stay away from the political rhetoric.”

Tom Russell plays Ballymaloe Grainstore, Co Cork, on November 13; Leap Castle, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, on November 16; and Whelan’s in Dublin, November 17. His latest album is October in the Railroad Earth.

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