It’s funny how one learns about a performer. In my case, it was from a newsletter from Loyola High School in Los Angeles, a rigorous Jesuit college prepartory school, from which I graduated. The notes of a class a few years ahead mentioned that one Tom Russell was releasing a new album and continuing to tour the world. That was unusual as most graduates did not go into the arts as performers, rather they became doctors, lawyers and businessmen. So I checked out Tom Russell the next time he came to McCabes, the best venue in Southern California for roots/Americana/folk — you-know-what-I-mean — music. Tom blew me and my friend away that night, and I became an instant fan.
Tom Russell is charismatic, handsome, wary, sometimes insouciant, witty, intense, ambitious, and very talented as a songwriter, performer and painter. His “man’s man” exterior — with a Southwestern motif — can be intimidating, but spend some time with him and his charm is evident and real. Russell is educated (he was reading a book of New Yorker profiles when I sat with him), articulate, realistic and genuinely enjoys performing. His show is not just music, but a delightful mélange of anecdotes and off the cuff witticisms. His following only increases. He is managed by his wife, the gorgeous, organized Nadine, who travels with him. I interviewed him on the Roots on the Rails trip from Los Angeles to Portland and back in April 2010.
TM: What’s an average year like?
TR: Since my wife took over the management and agent job in the United States, we’ve gone from 150 live dates to about 70 choice ones — festivals, theaters, larger clubs, and our goal is to make better and better records full of original songs that will advance me more towards playing about an 800 seat theater in the John Prine territory. It would be a very good place for me. I don’t have a desire to become the next Bob Dylan and play arenas or whatever. In this day and age when the song, the art of the song is dead, I want to be the last songwriter and move up into that general area of a John Prine.
TM: How many albums do you put out a year?
TR: We don’t put ‘em out every year. Every two, three years maybe. It takes a long time to write 10 or 12 songs that I’m satisfied with, so one every two or three years, and then there’s compilations and cowboy records and side projects, so we put out one piece of product every year. Let’s put it that way.
TM: Do you ever co-write?
TR: I used to co-write a lot with Dave Alvin and Steve Young and Katie Moffat and Ian Tyson, and I learned a lot, but I find more and more I wanna just write from one position. Co-writing entails a lot of compromise. A learning experience on one hand and a compromise on the other hand so the more I learn about it the more I want to write from my own position these days.
TM: How much of the time are you writing about things other than romance? TR: I’m not really known for my love songs. I’ve written a few for Nadine. If it’s gonna be a love song, it’s gotta be either very true or a new glimpse of love or something refreshing. There have been so many great love songs and 98% of all songs are about love. So it’s just the last few records that I’ve turned my attention (to it) – “Love and Fear” was the record that focused…
TM: All right, let’s get some background. You went to a Catholic high school I know.
TR: Yeah, you’re trying to flog that one…
TM: And then, uh, you went to University of California at Santa Barbara. Did you graduate?
TR: I got a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in the Sociology of Law, aka Criminology. (Then I) taught school one year in West Africa. I got disenchanted with academic people, not the subject matter. I loved the Africans; I didn’t like white academia (so I) went back to Vancouver where I had some friends teaching at the university and did odd jobs and loved Vancouver and walked by a bar one day and saw a country band playing. I thought, “That’s what I really wanna do.”
TM: And that’s where it started?
TR: I was 19-20, very young. Graduated very young.
TM: You had a master’s at 19?
TR: Yeah. Don’t even try to figure this out. Kid genius.
TM: When did you start playing guitar?
TR: L.A. My brother Pat is a pretty well known horseman and cowboy. Had a Tijuana guitar in the 50’s and he played Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash but he couldn’t really sing very well, and so I got his guitar. In college I always had a guitar and played Kingston Trio stuff. Then when I discovered Dylan and Ian and Sylvia I got more serious, and I always had a guitar. I never so much became a guitar player per se as (being) into song writers and folk singers and learning three chords and singing a lot of songs.
TM: Did you play at parties and things like that in college?
TR: A little bit — skits and parties — but still I didn’t have the guts, I was very self-conscious. Actually, I’m an introvert. It doesn’t seem like that but I am, and I didn’t have any stage presence at all, and so I was really scared to be in front of people. It wasn’t until about the last 20 years I’ve been really comfortable, more comfortable on stage than I am in real life, and it took a long time. So I really didn’t play until I got back from Africa and had to play in bars for five or ten years.
TM: That’s what you did? Playing what? Covers?
TR: Covers, 6-9 hours a night in bad bars. I gave it up a little in 1978 and drove a cab in New York for awhile. Married, I had a couple kids (including) the daughter we saw yesterday in Portland. Then I met one of the lyricists of The Grateful Dead in a cab one night. Long story, but he encouraged me to get back into music.
TM: Is that Robert Hunter?
TR: Yeah. I sang him “Gaya Del Cielo.” He loved the song. Invited me up on stage to sing it one night. Voila! Opened some shows for him and got back the music business and never looked back. He was a solo, and he would play to Grateful Dead audiences ’cause they were hip to the songs he wrote — all the good Dead songs. I knew who he was when I picked him up in the cab because his name was on the marquee. I told him I wrote a song called “Gaya Del Cielo” and he said “Sure, kid.” He had a drink in his hand. He said “Sing it for me.” I sang it for him. I blew him away. I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was drunk … “Sing it again. Sing it again. Sing it again. I wanna get the Dead to do that,” (he said). And he came back to town, which is New York, and hired me.
I went to his gig two weeks later and he started talking about, “I met this cab driver who wrote this song. I can’t get it out of my head.” He goes, “Instead of me talking about it, let’s get this guy up here.” And it was terrifying. Hadn’t played for a year, and number two, I wasn’t comfortable on stage and this song is very demanding. Even to this day the song is very demanding to sing, because it’s ten verses, but he got me up there, handed me his guitar and split and I looked out at the audience, all these reverent Dead Heads. I got through the song and they applauded me and I thought, “Wow.” I looked around to give him guitar back and he wasn’t there. So somebody yelled out, “Play another one.” So I ended up playing about three songs, and I felt like Hunter knew that this guy (me) needed encouragement and he was a good songwriter. Then he suddenly appeared and smiled and took the guitar back. He said, “You’re gonna be really good,” and then he came back to town two months later and had me open a show for him.
All of this is unbelievable in light of the current way people treat each other in this business. Nobody’s ever done anything like that to a cab driver. Two things happened since then. Somebody sent me a cassette tape of him at the Glastenbury Festival in England about a year later where he does “Gaya Del Cielo” and said, “I learned this from this cab driver. You won’t believe this song.” I have a cassette of that. And then I didn’t hear from him for 30 years. And when mynew album came out “Blood and Candle Smoke,” somebody got him a record and he e-mailed me saying, “This record is incredible, man. You really did it.” So that to me is enough that this guy did that back then. He’s co-writing with Dylan now and he just wrote me and said, “Man, between then and now, you’ve really done it.”
TM: My sense is that you have quite a good rapport with your fellow musicians, for example, Dave Alvin (who was on the Roots on the Rails trip)…
TM: And your guitar player Thad Beckman, you watch each other’s back, and try to help each other to some degree, don’t you?
TR: Yeah, definitely. There are, there is an inner circle of kind of outsiders and writers who respect each other and help each other out. It’s a diminishing circle at this level, which I would call the level below, fame-wise, Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, but yet above most other people. In this kind of environment and economy it’s a really rough level to be at, and we have our cult audiences, but we respect each other’s writing and, and it’s sort of an underground thing.
TM: The sound recording business is chaotic at best.
TR: Yeah, but in the light of that, what’s great for us is number one, we’re signed to a label “Shout Factory,” which are the guys that used to own Rhino. The label is doing very well and this record, “Blood and Candle Smoke,” has outsold anything I’ve ever done. It sound scanned in the United States 8 or 9 or 10,000 in an environment where aren’t any record stores. So I have to say, what I think is happening is a really good songwriter, which I hope I am, in this environment can survive better than before, because it’s down for a lot of people, like the people on this train, it’s down to like, “I’ll support that guy who’s still writing great songs. And it doesn’t hurt that I was on Letterman and NPR.
TM: How did you get on Letterman?
TR: Gerard Mulligan, who used to write for Dave, is a big fan of mine. He started feeding the CDs to Dave and Letterman’s a big songwriter fan. He loved Warren Zevon. Of course he featured Zevon on his show when Zevon was dying, and he heard my stuff and he liked it. It had a cowboy edge. He’s interested in the West. He’s got a ranch in Montana. He loved the songs. He also liked Nancy Griffith, who sang with me on the first appearance, 2004, I think, and since then he will usually have me back if I have a new record.
TM: How many times you been on his show?
TM: And has that been a great boost?
TR: Yeah. Well you’re playing to 15 million people. Especially that last time we were on the show, October 1, when he made his revelation that he was being blackmailed by…
TM: You were on that show?
TR: We were in the building. What happened was we were there and when it was going down, he taped two shows back to back, and our show played the next day. It couldn’t have been a better thing. It was unbelievable, and I didn’t know what was happening. People were coming up to me and saying, “Do you know what just went down? When he came out to tape my show, which was the second show he taped, it was the first time ever that he got up off the desk while the commercial was running. He came over to me and took my hand and said, “It’s great to see you. Great to have you back,” as if he needed a friend, because he had just laid that down. And then bang, we did our thing and he came over after, and he usually says something nice. He said to the people, “Tom Russell played in Choteau, Montana, rode in on a switch.” It was an inside joke as I had played a prior, kind of semi-private function (for Letterman).
TM: Has he interviewed you yet?
TR: No and I don’t think that’s gonna happen — you get your musical 3 ½ minute segment. If you’re Madonna, or world class, then they’ll give you another five minutes, but I don’t really need that, and that’s not part of the deal there. He’s the most successful guy in the history of television. That one hour is extremely valuable to anybody, just promoting anything, and when you get your 3 ½ minutes in front of 10 million, at my level it is a major thing.
TM: How did you get on NPR?
TR: Again, because of the songs. There aren’t that many great songwriters left that have an interesting angle to ‘em and I’ve done records like “Man From God Knows Where,” about my family coming from Ireland, which got a lot of NPR-type press. “Hot Walker” about the Beats and growing up in L.A. I was an interesting item for a little 6-minute Weekend Edition story for them. Again, there’s not that much interesting happening in music.
TM: When did you move to El Paso, and why did you move there?
TR: I moved there in ’97; I was getting tired of New York. I’d been in New York, Brooklyn, for 15 years as a base, and I was really a Southwestern person. I’m from L.A. I was looking in magazines, saw haciendas in New Mexico. I thought that’s where I want to be, and went out there and drove around and I saw a house for sale, and it was historic hacienda on three acres, very reasonably priced. I just wanted to change my life. I knew I didn’t have to go to a networking place. At the level I was at I knew I just wanted to be a writer and be isolated.
TM: Were you single then?
TR: No, I was in a relationship with a woman who had a connection to El Paso but she didn’t relate to it and went back to New York.
TM: So, the lovely Nadine, when and how did you meet her?
TR: We’d been linked forever. We met six years ago. I think she heard me on the radio and came to a gig. Of course when she walked into the gig with her mother, I just went who is that? And the funny part was, I thought, “Well she’s a naïve, young Swiss gal, she doesn’t know much about what I, of course, she knows more about Texas music than I did. She knew, since she was this big (indicating a little girl) Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers. She knows a lot about Mexican music.
TM: How did you become a painter?
TR: Long story. We have so much space out there. At one point I walked into this space that was built as a studio … and you can’t write all day. We’re not TV people, so we have time, and drew a cow or something and painted it, and somebody liked it, and I gave it to him and it just started real fast. I don’t come from any training or anything.
TM: When did you start painting?
TM: You definitely have your own style.
TR: Well it’s gone from folk art and the Yarddog Gallery in Austin handles the folk, real primitive stuff. Now, I’m getting a little better and I’m painting larger paintings with a gallery in Santa Fe, Rainbow Man.
TM: Are you painting in oil or acrylic?
TR: Acrylics. I would love to paint oil because the colors are stronger but it’s messier and you gotta be better, and I like to slop the paint on. I can do a painting sometimes in 20 minutes and then it’ll dry in three hours. Oils are for more sophisticated painters like say Charlie Hunter, who is a great painter. (Hunter is the entrepreneur who overseas and owns Roots on the Rails.) He’s able to draw anything. I’m more of a colorist and a fast painter. I might paint ten things and nine of them are trash and I’ll paint over them, and then I’ll get something that’ll work. More and more it’s like song writing. Same kind of thing.
TM: How long does it take you to write a song or is there any length?
TR: Oh, can take two years or 10 minutes. Same process. You have all these crafty techniques, but it’s the magic elements that are important and just trying hard. The more into it you get, the harder you’ve got to try.
TM: Five influences musically.
TR: Ian Tyson was probably my greatest influence, very melodic, big time songwriter with a huge catalogue. Ian and Sylvia is the first part of his career. Cowboy songs is the second part of his career. Melodic, very, very good songwriter. Dylan, but he wasn’t really an influence on me because his talents are so huge in so many different directions, but inspired continually by Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As far as influences, Tyson’s the main one. If I had to name a few, I like Van Morrison, and what Lucinda Williams does. I don’t like a lot of new younger songwriters. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s hitting the ball out of the park. There’s Freddy Neil who used to hang around the Village who was a great songwriter. A lot of people from that era, great songs. We don’t see people like that anymore. Steve Young is a great songwriter as is Dave Alvin. John Prine, I toured with him a little bit. Great songwriter. Guy Clark, but Tyson would be at the front of somebody I really studied and who really influenced…
TM: Did you become friends with him?
TR: Oh, yeah, we’re good friends. He comes down to the house. I studied under him, really. We co-wrote about 8 or 10 songs.
TM: Let’s talk about today. Is there anybody that you’re watching?
TR: Nobody that blows me away.
TM: What was the last concert you went to see?
TR: Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen in Phoenix this summer, who blew me away. Four hours. Never a bad line, never a bad song. Great shape. Also connected to the audience in a way Dylan can’t really, Dylan isn’t a communicator as far as person to person. Cohen just made you feel like he was happy you were there. I learn a lot from people like that. That was the last one that blew me away. Of course I must say I saw Johnny Rodriguez about six years ago in a honky tonk down the street playing to about 20 people and he blew me.
TM: Your father was a film producer?
TR: No, he was a building contractor, horse trader, he owned race horses and during the war I don’t know how he did it but he got a job with the Motion Picture Society. He had something to do with the Oscars. He ended up being the guy who brought the Oscar out to Bob Hope. That was the kind of guy he was, that he could get a job like that.
TM: You grew up with horses, right?
TR: Yes. I grew up around Hollywood Park, that back side of the track.
TM: Did you ride, too?
TR: Yeah, but my brother is the cow, my brother’s the guy that just, the minute he saw a horse, that was it.
TM: Do you ride now?
TR: No. We live next to a guy that’s got 12 horses and I see them every day. I can’t handle horses. It’s too far to fall.
TM: Did your parents approve of your career choice?
TR: Well my father and I were somewhat estranged; he died at 81, 10 years ago. I really wasn’t that close to him, he lost a lot of money. My mother was very, very supportive. My mother’s side was very Bohemian. Her brother was a concert pianist in New York. He played at the Martin Luther King rally, played the Star Spangled Banner. Uncle George, we call him, he was an incredible influence. He died two ago. My mother died in ’78. She was very musical and that side of the family was very musical. My father, he was more of a businessman, and a hustler. I don’t think he understood. He felt like, “Well, are you gonna make the same money Kenny Rodgers is making?” He didn’t get it. She got it.
TM: I sense that you could or should be a prose writer.
TR: I had a novel published in Norway 15 years ago and they’re going to bring it out in paperback now. It’s a crime novel. That’s why I ended up in New York. I had a developmental deal with the William Morris Agency and they had three of my manuscripts. They came very close and nothing happened, so I went back to music after that but I am working on a couple books.
For more on Tom Russell, go to http://www.tomrussell.com/