Album Review

Tom Russell - The Rose Of Roscrae

Tom Russell - The Rose of Roscrae

Tom’s ancestral and musical triptych finally reaches fruition - Tá sé iontach, tá sé go hálainn    

Let me begin by stating that what follows is intentionally long, it has to be, since Russell’s message is not solely confined to the musical and storytelling contents of the two discs, but undeniably embraces the contents of the accompanying “program guide with libretto.” Now read on …   

More decades ago than he’d probably care to be reminded, Thomas George Russell graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a Sociology of Law master’s degree. Any criminologist worth his salt will tell you that the devil’s in the detail; as a performing songwriter, that has been Russell’s focused approach from the get go. In a career spanning four decades plus, with a catalogue that runs to some thirty original albums, the engaging melodies apart, Russell’s lyrics have consistently related stories – many factually based, occasionally fictional. An eagle-eyed observer of everyday life – the extraordinary is often found residing within the ordinary – here, Tom’s lyrics are finely honed and razor sharp.

The Rose Of Roscrae completes a trilogy of thematic Russell recordings, that began with that other ancestral exploration The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and continued with Hotwalker (2005). Inspired by Tom’s letters to and from the late poet Charles Bukowski, with circus clown Little Jack Horton’s voice prominently featured on the CD, the recording explored  post WWII America’s culture underbelly by referencing “non-mainstream” actors, musicians, novelists, beat poets and more.  

In terms of storyline The Rose Of Roscrae delivers a historically based journey through the American West, merging real individuals and events with fictional ones. In practical terms, it’s a fifty-two selection (many of them multi-part), two-disc set with a duration of virtually two-and-a-half hours. I use the word selection advisedly, since the featured cowboy and folk inspired material takes the form of instrumental, song and narration; mostly song. While Russell is the principle composer, in order to properly relate his ‘folk tale’ traditional songs and compositions penned by others are embraced. Now that’s what I call creative magnanimity. Should you wish to delve further into this roots of this ‘tale,’ Russell has created a profusely detailed, almost one-hundred page ‘program guide with libretto’ more of which later.

As for contributors to this project Russell has cast his net far and wide, merging new recordings with many from ‘the past.’ This egalitarian approach further energises Tom’s panoramic ‘folk tale.’ Voices from ‘the past’ include the late Johnny Cash performing the traditional “Sam Hall,” while legendary British folklorist A. L. “Bert” Lloyd supports with “The Unfortunate Rake,” from John and Alan Lomax’s 1930’s field recordings Moses “Clear Rock” Platt sings “St. James Hospital” and travelling back to the 19th century poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman delivers four lines from his poem “America.” Added to that are contributions from Jimmy LaFave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the duo of David Massengill and the (recently) late Jack Hardy, Finbar Furey, John Trudell, Tom’s current ‘touring’ sideman Thad Beckman and predecessor Andrew Hardin,  Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, Pat Manske and more. If that’s not sufficient, The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, Pasadena’s Waverley School Choir and a Swiss Yodel Choir enjoy cameos. By employing such breadth and depth, richly detailed sonic decoupage has resulted.

Russell takes the lead role of Johnny Dutton aka Johnny Behind-The-Deuce, Maura O’Connell voices Rose Malloy aka Rose of Roscrae; other lead characters include Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Old Rattlebag The Cowboy Minstrel), David Olney (the irascible Judge Squig), Joe Ely (Deputy Marshal Joe Eagle), Augie Meyers (Augie Blood, Marshal and traveling Evangelist), Fats Kaplin (The Fiddlin’ Fatman) while Russell’s co-producer Barry Walsh is The Saloon Piano Man.  

One aspect of this project wasn’t apparent to Russell during the writing phase; in the ‘program guide,’ viewed from a distance, he acknowledges - “It surprises me, as I listen to the mixes, how many songs deal with the spiritual side of things.” In terms of timescale, commencing in the late 1880’s Johnny’s journey comfortably spans the Biblical “three score years and ten,” begins and ends in County Tipperary, Ireland, with the action principally taking place across the mighty Atlantic in Texas, on the heartland plains, and also in California, Mexico and Canada – all being locations where Russell has resided, or possesses intimate familiarity. Based on what I’ve noted thus far, one contention is that Tom has totally taken to heart author Louisa May Alcott’s advice, while his merging of fact with fiction mirrors novelist Frederick Forsyth’s style. For instance, at one stage Johnny works as a cowboy for the legendary, trailblazing Texas cattle rancher Charlie Goodnight, while Father Damien and his Molokai (Hawaiian Islands) leper colony really existed. Approached from another angle, the music Dutton would have heard while incarcerated in Angola Prison (Louisiana) and Sugarland Prison (Texas), has allowed Russell to draw on the 1930’s field recordings of John and Alan Lomax. In terms of public awareness, Lead Belly being their best known find.    

Here’s a skeletal synopsis of the ‘tale.’ Teenage Johnny Dutton, smitten with Rose, is driven from his native Ireland following a savage beating by her father. Journeying to America, he initially finds work as a cowboy, then, turning to the outlaw life, resurfaces as Johnny Behind-The-Deuce. Decades later, condemned to hang for horse stealing, aided by Squig, Deuce escapes pursued by the tenacious Blood (embracing a lighter edge, the latter drives a covered wagon, pulled by mules - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Some years prior Deuce had lured Rose to America, married her in California, then abandoned her. During a run-in with his Civil War veteran/recovering ne’er-do-well cousin Joseph Dutton, Deuce learns the former has volunteered to work on Father Damien’s leper colony. A pivotal occurrence – treating society’s outcasts with charity – shortly thereafter, Deuce’s conscience severely pricked by Joseph’s revelation, he contemplates redemption setting in train his long, slow recovery.

Where the Disc 1 lyrics focus upon the male – Johnny/Deuce’s - point of view, women, particularly Rose, take a more prominent role on Disc 2. Seeking reconciliation, Deuce returns to California and enters Rose’s ranch house where he’s shot and wounded. Rose thought a bear had entered her property, furthermore she rejects him. Further merging fact with fiction, the foregoing event is based on a real-life event faced, a few years ago, by Tom’s rancher sister-in-law. Finally arrested by Blood, imprisoned for a decade, Deuce mellows and dreams (once again) of rapprochement with Rose. When her brother passed, Rose returned to Ireland to tend the family farm. In prison the partially dyslexic Deuce writes many letters to Rose, addressing them to Roscrae. All are returned marked “no such place,” Roscrea would have guaranteed delivery. So the question is, are Johnny (Deuce having been consigned to his past) and Rose reunited? The straight arrow answer, buy the album and all will be revealed. Having embraced the outline of Russell’s ‘folk tale’ in this and the previous paragraph, countless other side trips occur within The Rose Of Roscrae but space precludes mentioning them here.

And what of the music embraced in the panoramic The Rose Of Roscrae? Here are a few snapshots. Opening to the sound of a crackling campfire, a verse of “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie,” performed by The Cowboy Minstrel, segues with ninety-five year old Dutton’s heart-sore recollection of leaving Ireland and, how, decades later he cheated the gallows. Performed by The Norwegian Wind Ensemble segments of Russell’s “The Rose Of Roscrae Overture” appear throughout, including as backdrop to the foregoing narration. Approached very much in the panoramic spirit of classical composer Aaron Copland, The Overture merges a handful of traditional cowboy melodies with (one of two Dutton/Deuce renditions of) Russell’s “This Is The Last Frontier.” Following a choral supported rendition of “Last Frontier,” we’re introduced to Squig’s hellfire and brimstone courtroom judgements that Johnny Behind-The-Deuce treats with stinging verbal disdain. Johnny’s heartfelt, Celtic flavoured rendition of “The Rose Of Roscrae,” is followed by the hard rocking “Hair Trigger Heart,” while in hot pursuit Blood and Eagle contend “He’ll Be Dead Before He Hits The Ground” to which the evangelical former adds “Just A Closer Walk.” Viewed from a historic context, or simply as a work of art, the almost six-minute, narrated, buffalo/Native American themed “The Last Running” is simply genius. As the Dutton/Deuce tale unfolds there are cameos/renditions of the traditional “Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos” (LaFave/Peters), “Carrickfergus” (Furey) and “The Water Is Wide” (Russell). “The Hands Of Damien” and the penultimate “She Talks To God” illustrate the fading away of Duece and the resurgence of Dutton.

Rose launches Disc 2 with a reprise of “The Water Is Wide/Overture” following which she replies with the affirmation “I Talk To God.” As noted earlier there is a greater female presence on Disc 2 - Eliza Gilkyson (“The Bear,” “The Railroad Boy” and “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well”) and Gretchen Peters (“When The Wolves No Longer Sing,” and from 2008’s 'with Russell' collaboration One To The Heart, One To The Head the already familiar “Guadalupe”). Harking back to the dawn of Russell’s recording career Ely (aka Eagle) and Tyson reprise “Gallo Del Cielo,” Blood and Eagle revisit “He’ll Be Dead…” while “West Texas Montage” is bookended by elements of “Red River Valley” and “Old Paint” performed by The Cowboy Minstrel. That bona fide folk/country classic “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” features a ‘2014 home recorded’ opening verse from its creator, Guy Clark, with hit composer Dan Penn supplying the remainder. As Disc 2 approaches its climax, in the waltz paced “Midnight Wine (White Lies And Cold Chardonnay)” the now restored Dutton raises his glass and offers “a toast to survival,” acknowledges Blood’s drunken demise in “Whiskey In His Blood” and in “Tularosa” reflects upon his colourful past. Assisted vocally by Morlix, Gilkyson, Meyers and Manske, Johnny Dutton leads on the penultimate and traditional “Isn’t It Grand?” leaving Rose to close with a heart rending reading of “The Rose Of Roscrae.”    

Earlier, I promised a few words regarding the content of the ‘program guide.’ Sub-divided into ten sections, some sixty-pages are given over to annotated lyrics and narrations, there’s a two-part Act1/Act 2 (ie. Disc 1/Disc 2) story synopsis, song notes (approached as folklore particularly relative to the traditional material), thumbnail bios of the musical contributors and more. My synopsis - this tome projects the two-disc aural content from 2D to 3D. Regrets, there are always regrets, and in the program’s Epilogue Russell notes that, such was the extent of his research, that a 10 CD set would not have been a stretch. I’d respectfully suggest that 10 CD’s would have been a stern test of listener stamina and their personal finances. For the ‘program guide’ and more, see the Frontera Records link below   

In terms of what really occurred in the Old West, Broadway templates such as Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun equate to that present-day cancer - reality television! In concept and execution Russell’s The Rose Of Roscrae is genuine 100% Americana (I detest having to type the latter ‘A’ word since, in essence, it’s purely a marketing term, although, musically speaking, its use is totally appropriate here), furthermore in a 21st century context, Russell’s Roscrae masterpiece, as well as his back catalogue, totally outstrips (so much of) the music by contemporaries that masquerades as such. Where others pay lip service to commerce, Russell honours truth and honesty. Russell is no carpetbagger or claim jumper; my inference being clear! Furthermore, he open heartedly understands that historic context and musical tradition are inextricably linked, while many contemporaries don’t understand there is even a connection! Celtic blood courses through this writer’s veins, and the sonically colourful melodies and richly poetic images embedded throughout The Rose Of Roscrae is the stuff of hair-raising chills and joyous optic moisture. Such personal reactions to music heard, have always been hallmarks of true creative quality………….