I’ve been a Tom Russell fan since 1975, when he sent me a copy of Ring of Bone, his superb duet album with Patricia Hardin. “Why hasn’t everybody heard of this guy?” I wondered. More than 40 years later, I’m still asking myself that question.
Over the years, Russell has released about three dozen records, most of them solo efforts, and all of them excellent. Endlessly inventive, he has delivered everything from a two-disc folk/rock/country opera about an Irish immigrant to a live album with the 31-member Norwegian Wind Ensemble that incorporates jazz, folk, Tex-Mex, and classical elements. Folk Hotel, his 14-track, 71-minute latest release (see video below), is one of the best and maybe even the best of all the items in his catalog.
Russell’s music has been called Americana, but he has said that that is “a dumb term … a grab bag where they throw people who don’t fit anywhere else.” At least where his own music is concerned, he has a point. To categorize Russell’s recordings, you’d have to cite a long list of genres, and you’d still come up short. Labels have their limits when you’re dealing with someone this original.
On Folk Hotel, all of Russell’s talents are on full display (even his abilities as a painter—he did the cover art). His intense, gravelly vocals command attention throughout; the music is sublime and atmospheric; and Russell’s richly detailed lyrics are pure poetry.
Among the many colorful vignettes here: “Leaving El Paso,” about the singer’s own move from that city to Santa Fe; “The Sparrow of Swansee,” a song about Dylan Thomas that Russell cowrote with Katy Moffatt and that sounds musically reminiscent of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”; and “I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses,” which was inspired by singer/songwriter Ian Tyson’s answer to Russell’s question about why he didn’t move south from Alberta, Canada. Also: “The Last Time I Saw Hank,” which Russell wrote after dreaming about Hank Williams; “Scars on his Ankles,” about blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins; “Harlan Clancy,” about a man who threw his TV into a river; and “Rise Up, Handsome Johnny,” about JFK. Yet another highlight is the album’s sole cover: “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a duet with Joe Ely on Bob Dylan’s classic tale of being “lost in the rain” on an Easter Sunday in Juarez, Mexico.
Ely is only one of several noteworthy guests on this album. Mark Hallman—who coproduced the CD at his Congress House studio in Austin, Texas—provides vocal backup, guitar, harmonica, and piano. Joel Gusman’s accordion work adds atmosphere on three tracks, including the Dylan cover; and Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) contributes a fine vocal and piano intro to “Harlan Clancy.” The album also features vocals on three tracks by folk artist Eliza Gilkyson. Guitarist Redd Volkaert, who played for years with Merle Haggard, contributes to three selections.
Put this record on your must-buy list and then start saving your money. After you hear Folk Hotel, you’re going to want to own a lot more from Russell’s engrossing catalog.
Whitney Rose, Rule 62. Austin, Texas-based Whitney Rose hits a home run with this latest release (out October 6), which finds her walking a line between pop/rock and retro country as gracefully as anyone since Rosanne Cash and Linda Ronstadt. The Mavericks’ Raol Malo, who produced Rose’s 2015 debut, returns to produce this effort and provide guitar and backing vocals. On breakup songs like “I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out)” and “Better to My Baby,” the combination of Rose’s gorgeous vocals, twangy guitars, romance-focused lyrics, and a steady beat is intoxicating. You can tell that she has been listening to Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and other Opry giants—but also to the Ronettes. (In fact, Rose and Malo recorded a memorable duet version of that group’s “Be My Baby” for her debut CD, Heartbreaker of the Year.)
Anna Tivel, Small Believer. This all-originals collection from Anna Tivel, who plays guitar and violin, reminds me of Pieta Brown: like Brown, the Oregon-based Tivel sings effusive story songs in a delicate voice that makes you feel as if you’re being let in on a secret. Her tales are well told and sometimes heartbreaking. Witness “Illinois,” the leadoff track, about someone who drove “all the way from Illinois, a thousand miles of waiting for a gentle touch, a kind, believing word,” only to wind up “standing in the kitchen in an awful fight” and “lying in the dark alone.” Producer Austin Nevins provides excellent backup on guitars, pump organ, lap steel, banjo, and glockenspiel; additional instrumentation on the album (out September 29) includes bass, drums, keyboards, and clarinet.
Savoy Brown, Witchy Feelin’. More than 60 musicians have at one time or another been members of this small British blues band—and that’s not counting the many guest artists who’ve played with them. Founded in 1965, the group is now a trio that includes a bassist and drummer who joined in 2009 plus Kim Simmonds, who cofounded the outfit in 1965 and has been in every lineup. This latest album—which is more rock-oriented and a bit less bluesy than early Savoy Brown—continues the satanic theme of relatively recent releases like Voodoo Moon and The Devil to Pay with song titles like “Why Did You Hoodoo Me,” “Close to Midnight,” and “Thunder, Lightning & Rain.” The songs and Simmonds’s baritone are not particularly distinctive, but his compelling guitar work is enough to make the album well worth a listen.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His next book is set for publication in early 2018. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.