Tom Russell’s talent and penchant for experimentation have fueled some terrific projects over the course of his four-decade, 28-album career, but never more so than in recent years. In 2013, for example, he issued Aztec Jazz, a genre-bending classic that found him recording his masterful country/folk compositions live in Norway with guitarist Thad Beckman and the 31-member Norwegian Wind Ensemble. And now comes The Rose of Roscrae, which seems to be a direct descendant of Russell’s The Man from God Knows Where, a 1998 song cycle that featured numerous guest artists and conjured up the hard times of America’s early immigrants.
The two-CD, 52-track new collection—a folk opera subtitled “A Ballad of the West”—is even more ambitious than its predecessors. Available with an 82-page “program guide with libretto,” it features a list of performers long enough to mandate mice type for the credit list. Among the players, many of whom should be familiar to fans of contemporary folk and alt-country: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Clark, Jimmy LaFave, Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. The Norwegian Wind Ensemble is here too, not to mention the Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern and the Last Frontier Chorus. And as if that weren’t enough, Russell throws in snippets from recordings by such departed legends as Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Lead Belly and Walt Whitman.
The music is as diverse as the list of contributors. The program—which opens with a mournful overture that features Gilmore and the Wind Ensemble—mixes old and new folk-, rock- and country-flavored originals by Russell with Irish, French-Canadian and Mexican music; gospel standards like “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Rock of Ages”; and cowboy classics such as “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley” and “Streets of Laredo.”
It’s a wild ride that clearly had the potential to evolve into one big mess. Instead, it is a grand evocation of the Old West and a musical tour de force. True, the story that runs through these tracks—about the life, loves and misadventures of an Irish boy who arrives in the American West in the 1880s—can seem convoluted at times. And while the spoken parts are uniformly well done, you may after a few listens want to create an iTunes playlist that lets you focus on the music.
But what a glorious batch of music it is. My own favorites include the melancholy, contemplative “Irish Medley/The Stable”; “Hair Trigger Heart” one of the hardest-driving, most emotion-charged rockers Russell has ever delivered; Maura O’Connell’s spellbinding version of the title cut; and Gretchen Peters’s take on the lilting “When the Wolves No Longer Sing.” But much of the rest of this merits four stars as well. It may only be springtime, but as far as I’m concerned, we’ve already got a leading contender for Americana album of the year.
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press.