When Tom Russell released his first collection of outtakes and obscurities in 2002, he indicated in the liner notes that “there is easily enough strong material for additional releases—the second volume is pretty much in the can already, if this one is successful.” Maybe the can got lost because it took 11 years, but we finally have that follow-up and the tracks are as noteworthy as promised. As with volume one, in fact, it’s hard to believe that these frequently brilliant performances stayed unreleased for so long.
While the previous collection covered 1972 to 2002 in chronological order, this one begins with a track recorded just last February (“Old Saltillo Road,” about Elvis’s desire to return to his Tupelo, Mississippi roots) and works backward over four decades to 1973’s “Trucker’s Farewell.” As on the first Memories collection, the vintage stuff is almost all as fully conceived and powerful as the recent material.
Highlights include the live-in-the-studio “Business End of the Blues,” a duet with Amos Garrett that Russell coauthored with Katy Moffatt but that sounds like a classic from the public domain; “The Coat Hank Williams Wore,” which Russell wrote after a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; “The Heart Can’t Stand It,” an uptempo live recording; and “Valley of the Rio Grande” and “Leaving Texas,” a pair of mid-seventies tracks made with the artist’s old performing partner Patricia Hardin. (Check out their work together on The Early Years 1975–79, which belongs on any list of Greatest Albums Almost No One’s Ever Heard.)
Like virtually all of Russell’s records, this one is filled with imaginative and evocative lyrics and arresting, soulful vocals. Typically, it’s also unclassifiable—a little bit roots rock, a little bit folk, a little bit country, a little bit Tex/Mex. Just file it under A for “Another Fine Tom Russell Album.” Like Elliott Murphy, Greg Brown and a handful of others, he’s an artist who makes you scratch your head and mutter, “How come this guy’s not famous?”
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters (Chicago Review Press, 2013). The same publisher will issue his Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters in April 2014.