Folk Hotel for release on September 8 will be Tom Russell’s 36th solo record. An artist who needs no introduction on these pages, having received much critical acclaim over a 40 year career not just for the quality of his work, but its vast scope; writing songs, poetry, prose, making music and painting. You might wonder then what is there left to do? I was fortunate to have a fascinating chat with Tom about the new record that left me in no doubt about Folk Hotel’s significance. This isn't just the next album, Folk Hotel is a very distinct shift of emphasis back to one man playing guitar and singing songs. In his perfectly modulated clear diction he states, “I’m only interested in the strong song”.
Russell linked the idea behind Folk Hotel to One More For Ian and Sylvia, a tribute to the Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson, released earlier this year. “This was a pared back ‘60s style record of their songs. Me sitting with a guitar singing songs, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Usually, the process is quite complicated. It worked for the Ian and Sylvia record so I wanted to try it with my own songs”.
Testing this back to basics theory, I asked if he thought music in general and Americana in particular has just become too complex and rigidly categorised. Is Folk Hotel Russell’s way of getting back to making music and telling a story? “Definitely, I grew up listening to all sorts of music; my parents liked classical music and Broadway musicals, my brother loved cowboy songs. I grew up on Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ian and Sylvia. What I was interested in was a singer and a story. Look at Austin, TX, in the late 60’s and 70s; Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, both wonderful storytellers. I’m passionately into great songwriters”.
We've lost so many of these musicians, are they being replaced? Russell acknowledges the losses of the past couple of years alone but, “as someone once said, art doesn't move in a straight line. No-one painted buffalo better than those cave dwellers. Picasso didn't have a replacement and no-one will replace Dylan or Leonard Cohen. What comes next doesn't bother me too much. I just want to concentrate on doing my best”.
So this is a significant moment in a distinguished career and a big challenge; go back to the start and do it all over again. So let’s see what happens when you check into the Folk Hotel.
It's probably no surprise that Russell painted the cover picture. If it looks like the Chelsea Hotel then that’s no surprise either because inside this lovely old building are people of all sorts from all over the world and all brought together by the proprietor, Mr Tom Russell. And what stories they have to tell as we settle down in the bar.
The opening song, ‘Up in The Old Hotel' refers to the book of the same name by the famed New Yorker journalist and chronicler, “Ghost of Joseph Mitchell came tumbling down the hall”. There is accompaniment on the record, perfectly pitched but always in a supporting role. Here it is Joel Guzman’s lilting accordion.
Scene thus set, the deepest impression this album leaves is of people and places. The playing is impeccable but the sweep of places and the people we meet on the way is what makes Russell such a storyteller. The West features as you might expect. ‘Leaving El Paso’ is about the move he and his wife made to Santa Fe along the conquistador trail. We stay in the region for ‘I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses’ about Russell’s failed attempt to entice Ian Tyson from his Canadian home to join him out west. Tyson wouldn't leave his horses behind. The accordion is back but this is most certainly one man singing a song playing his guitar. We could be round the campfire.
From there we go to Wales, for a gritty version of the song he wrote with Katy Moffatt dedicated to Dylan Thomas, ‘The Sparrow of Swansea’. Next we cross the Irish Sea for ‘All on a Belfast Morning’, where Russell sings of a day in the life of that city. Of all the places he goes on this record, this song above all demonstrates his ability to sing from the perspective of a local. Russell doesn't just come to your town and tell you about his. Inspired by his perceptive take on a place, he will tell you about it as if he'd lived there all his life. And it’s not just English speaking locations either, the same applies to ‘The Rooftops of Copenhagen’, about a Faroese who won a bet and became a local hero for rowing a kayak from his home across the seas to Denmark. Russell met him in a bar making good progress spending his winnings. These are all stories.
If you want further evidence of Tom Russell’s ability to become one of the local crowd have a look at the video below, ’Nova Beat Express Radio’.
Of all the people we find in the Folk Hotel the most vivid is, ’Harlan Clancy’. He is a collective representation of the many people Russell has worked with in his early life. This was hard work; mending roofs and early hours on a diary farm. Russell describes him, “Harlan comes from a world most visitors to the US don't see; he isn't on the coasts but ekes out a living somewhere in the middle. His views may not chime with those on either side but he is a good man, just caught in two worlds.” “I ain’t no racist, I ain’t no redneck” sings Russell as Harlan props up the the bar with his Mexican fellow worker and friend.“You lost the common man in all your psychobabble and political spin”. Sound familiar?
‘The Day They Dredged The Liffey/The Banks of Montauk/The Road to Santa Fe-O’ contains everything. It starts with Russell reciting poetry as if he were every bit the Dubliner as those he describes gathering together. The song ends with what feels like a sea shanty about the life that lies ahead in America.
The album finishes with two bonus tracks; ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Russell's favourite Dylan composition that he sings in a perfect duet with Joe Ely and ‘Scars On His Ankles’, an imaginary encounter between legendary Rolling Stone writer Grover Lewis and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Tom Russell describes Folk Hotel as the most significant project he has worked on for years. In seeking to get back to one man, a guitar and a song he draws on his sharp perception, wide reading, boundless imagination, and wit. If this becomes Russell’s new direction (he did mention a country album next) then the future of the storytelling tradition is in safe hands.