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Box of Visions: The Music of Tom Russell

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Come gather 'round me children, a story I will tell . . ."

With these words, Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell draws us near for his stories-in-song of his ancient kin, immigrants from Ireland and Norway, in "The Man From God Knows Where" (1999 HighTone Records).

Family characters in the song cycle of this recording introduce themselves: "My name is Mary Clare Malloy, I was born in County Cork," starts one song. "My name is Anna Olsen, leaving Norway was so hard. I watch my nearest neighbors now, planting fruit trees in their yard," begins another. The effect feels as intimate as if you were on the front porch with Mary Clare and Anna, thumbing through a family album while learning of their loves, hardships and dreams.

Russell provides lead vocals on many songs in his ragged baritone voice, while turning over the microphone on other pieces to some of the finest Irish and American folk and traditional artists: Dolores Keane, Iris DeMent, Dave Van Ronk, among them.

"The Man From God Knows Where" was my first exposure to Russell. Through this record and his other music, I discovered that the Great American Novel exists; it's just not in the pages of a book.  Instead, it's contained in the songs and stories of Tom Russell, who's shared them over the years on trains along the Rio Grande and through the Canadian wilderness, in cheap hotels and Skid Row dives with their snake acts and topless and bottomless bars, and once at four in the morning as a New York cab driver, traveling through Rockaway Park, whose fare was Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. During the drive, Russell told Hunter that he was a songwriter, too.

"Yeah, sure you are. Sing me one of your songs," Hunter said.

Russell sang him his song about rooster-fighting, "Gallo del Cielo", and sung it again and again at Hunter's insistence while the meter turned and read $300.

A year later, Hunter called Russell onto the red brick stage of the Bitter End in NYC to sing the chicken song and several more before five hundred Dead Heads.

There was no going back to the taxi garage for Tom.

Like the stories-in-song on "The Man From God Knows Where", Russell relates Mickey Mantle's life in first-person, evoking a time of triumph for the baseball hero and regret that is also the stuff of legends.  All Music Guide has called "The Kid from Spavinaw", "the greatest song that has thus far, and probably ever will be, written about Mickey Mantle."

Tom Russell pays thanks to many other of his heroes on his records and, in the process, paints a portraits of America over the past sixty years. You can find an ode to environmental activist and author Edward Abbey; a song about Muhammad Ali; a tribute to the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone; and a portrait of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran.  In doing so, he's reclaiming the narrative of this country from the politicians and advertising corporations.

"America...I always thought it was our America, as much as anybody else's, you know. Circus people and carnival freaks, prisoners and music makers, musicians, troubadours, minstrels, hobos, poets and such. We can't let the goddamn country go down to politicians and corporate madmen and college professors and media people, run it over and ruin it all. It's ours...it's our goddamn country!"  Circus midget Little Jack Horton on Tom Russell's record, "Hotwalker."

On "Hotwalker", Russell looks at a vanishing America, a country we knew before strip malls, 24-hour television, Facebook and the always-on-call culture of cell phones. He populates the story with stories and voices of bygone times, illustrating what we're losing as a society as we get faster and bypass the backroads of our towns and minds.

He speaks in his own voice and through a persona, Little Jack Horton, circus midget and friend to poet Charles Bukowski, while sounding like "Ukulele Ike on laughing gas". He assembles the music and stories of the people who have colored this "Gone America", offering us their great stories and songs.

Dave Van Ronk was the so-called Mayor of MacDougal Street and Pope of Greenwich Village, a respected figure of folk and blues music when Bob Dylan was still playing the baskethouses.  The most touching moment on the "Hotwalker" record and a high mark in all of Russell's recordings is his tribute to Van Ronk, leading off with Fats Kaplin on the fiddle.

I saw Van Ronk in concert once in a nearly-empty hall on Oakland Avenue in Milwaukee, WI. He was near the end of his days and played a short set, but afterward he greeted every person who came to the show, signed autographs and made small talk. He asked me about a hat shop he used to visit, but I was too stunned, too much in awe of the man to answer. (Besides, I had no idea about the hat shop).  He signed a copy of his "Somebody Else, Not Me" record for me anyway.

I've sat in the front row twice when Tom Russell made stops years ago at Gil's Cafe on Milwaukee's east side (see above), where I talked about cowboy poets and Edward Abbey before Tom put on his Stetson and moved toward the microphone.  Owner Gil Rasmussen championed folk and the blues there, loved the flavor of sounds from the Southwest America, and turned the upstairs of his restaurant into Music Mecca, made heavenly by the hardwood floors and by the intimate atmosphere where I felt like I could reach out and fret Russell's Martin guitar if he needed a hand and I could actually play.

Like all good things, Gil's Cafe came to an end. Rasmussen closed to spend more time with his family. Some other restaurant moved in, minus the music. I can still play the movie in my mind, however, of Russell and his guitarist Andrew Hardin unable to leave the stage at the end of their set at Gil's because of the crush of people upstairs, or of the sight of the strong, beautiful, freckled faces and russet hair of the Irish girls who sat along one wall of the Cream City brick interior, while Russell and Hardin serenaded with the song, "When Irish Girls Grow Up."

"I believe in the ability of true art to heal and move people into a little timeless corridor for a few moments and save them from the rages of boredom and soul-corrosion."  1

"I feel a full record of well-written songs is a revolutionary act in these days. That sort of collection will stand out in the era of single song downloading." 2

"Why can't we create new composers along the lines of the greats like Bach and Beethoven? Because classical music now comes out funded from the university and does not come from the street. So hip-hop is more relevant." 3

"They locked me up as a hopeless psycho in a dilapidated dry-out hospital in the desert. I had not slept for a year. I broke out once, and five huge Mexicans ran after me and stomped me into the parking lot." 4

"Go get a job in a bar and learn ten Hank Williams songs. Get lost in Mexico. Songwriting is about building on your roots then finding out who you are...and writing down to the blood and bones." 5

"I've always felt on the outside, looking in. I never felt comfortable in a group. Maybe that's why I got a degree in Criminology, to find out why I felt so weird in this society." 6

"I just want to hear a song that makes me pull my truck over to the side of the road and listen, and then shiver." 7

"If a man can't piss in his own front yard, he's living too close to town." From the song, "The Ballad of Edward Abbey". Watch Russell perform this number in the video below.

One of my favorite songs, tunes or compositions, rock, folk, classical, jazz or otherwise, is "Box of Visions". Russell writes that its inspiration came from a photo, "Caja de Visiones", by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

I have listened to "Box of Visions" a thousand times or more, but the last two lines of the chorus still destroy me.

Wait a while and you'll grow stronger
Never mind what the sad folks say
Just keep an angel on your shoulder
And never throw your dreams away
For they may save your life one day.

Russell recorded "Box of Visions" in the studio for a 1992 release, but my favorite version arrived five years later in a live duet with songbird Iris Dement.

If you'd like to learn more about Tom Russell, click HERE for his Website. You may also view a one-hour documentary on Russell as he and his friends take a musical journey across Canada on a film presented at Vimeo.com.  Click HERE to view this film.