Monday, October 11, 2004

Elderly West

In introducing singer/songerwriter Tom Russell's appearance on his show, David Letterman made an ever astute observation about Russell's new CD, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs. "You'll listen to this CD once and you'll saddle up, and you'll ride up to Babb and knock off a liquor store. Honest to God that's what'll you'll do..."

Russell went on to give a rousing performance of the CD's opening track, "Tonight We Ride." The song, an old western opus that is really new, sounds like it has been around forever and that it belongs on some scratchy 78 being discovered by a curious music lover somewhere in the vast Midwest.

The CD indeed is all Letterman said it is and much much more. The songs, both covers and Russell originals, spin yarns of a country long lost, songs about the foundation of what once was and has somehow seriously been jarred off its pillars as we all sit and watch, semi-innocent bystanders.

"Tonight We Ride" contains some great guitar licks as Russell sings about hunting down Pancho Villa and visiting whorehouses while dying the preferred cowboy death- drinking oneself to death.

Almost all that follows are old west ballad/song stories. Included are two great covers of two great Dylan songs- "Seven Curses," with its tale of woe of a young woman being abused by a lecherous judge, and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," where Russell has a rollicking good time trading the witty lines with Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely in such a way that the story of love lost, jealously, and murder unfold in a new way even to ears that have listened to the song many different times over the many years.

The CD that hits the ground running really hits its stride with a cheeky cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso." The song is perhaps one of the saddest tales ever written and in Robbins' version is made even spookier by the vocalist's choice of weirdly odd gleeful singing of stanzas like: "But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen/Though I am weary, I can't stop to rest/I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle/I feel the bullet go deep in my chest."

Russell's version is a bit more mournful but maintains the spirit of Robbins great song. What is revealed is that not only is something wrong about a love gone way wrong but that the time that has passed in the song has now passed in real time. This country isn't nearly in the same state as it was when "El Paso" was a hit long long ago in 1959. Then the story of a love gone wrong seemed to be about what it feels like to die for someone, either from a broken heart or from a bullet to that all too weak organ, when that someone loves someone else.

Given the wars that this country has since seen beginning in Vietnam and now in Iraq one can't help but hear something else through Old West nostalgic ears. There exists in this very place where one deals with one's perceived being wronged with a eye for eye, tooth for tooth revengeful justice. This seeps, this pours through the wounds and that is why so many in this country (at least half) want to believe so badly that we are justified to respond to a "homeland" attack by attacking someone else even though it was clear from the start that who we are attacking isn't even who attacked us in the first place. Go figure. And capture the leader of this tangential oil full land while killing those who had little to do with him and that's somehow OK because we all saw those towers tumble.

Russell's music covers all this and more maybe not explicitly but in a this is a disc that must be played over and over to truly appreciate its many charms and insights, way. The musicianship isn't perfect, isn't overly produced yet it gets its job done in its seemingly off the cuff spontaneity. Likewise Russell's vocals sell the stories with a heartfelt passion. Disintegrating country? Perhaps. Survivable series of events? Probably.

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