Tom Russell was packing up and leaving New York City for El Paso, the desert city on the border of Texas and Mexico, when we spoke. “That idea that I had to live in a hip marketplace — New York, Austin, Nashville — I don’t really need that anymore. I just need a place to write,” he explained. “There’s a chain link fence around the property, barbed wire, that’s good; just get back in there, lock the gate and write for a few months,” he says.
Russell grew up on a ranch in Topanga Canyon in California. The space, the dry heat, the big sky, the working people rather than businessmen — it must all recall a bit of home. “You’re in Austin and you go into a Mexican restaurant and there’s a bunch of lawyers talking on cell phones. Down here there’ll be Mexicans in the Mexican restaurant. It’ll be good to just not deal with all the business.”
Russell is an outsider, always has been it seems. He’s made about a dozen albums, stocked with energetic and literate songs that have been praised by the critics and mostly ignored by radio. He’s written hits for other singers and has toured successfully in Europe. The typical songwriter story.
But not the rest of it. Russell’s apprenticeship in the bars of Vancouver — “pretty rough places,” he says with understatement — his travels in the Southwest, Canada, Scandinavia and Puerto Rico (the last for a gig with a surreal carnival), his eventual flight from music, his return in the late ’80s with the hardest-rocking albums ever released by the folk-oriented label Philo, his work as a fiction writer, his enduring love for such unbuzzable genres as the Mexican corrido and the cowboy epic, and a deep catalog featuring some of the most crafted, vivid story songs in American music…all of it adds up to the value of life on the margins.
“I was educated as a criminologist/sociologist years and years ago,” Russell explains. “Before I was in Vancouver, I was in Africa teaching, and I got disenchanted with it immediately because I didn’t like academic people. I thought I was gonna end up studying street people and crime. I think that, too, carried over into who I wrote about in my songs.…I can’t say I have it so hard anymore. One thing I knew when I was working skid row bars was that I was gonna get out of there in five years. When you know you have a hope in hell of getting away, you can make it through some situations, but a lot of these people knew they were never getting out of there.”
Those are the figures who populate Russell’s songs: Faulkner trapped in Hollywood, a washed-up actress living in her car, the prisoners of the Japanese-American concentration camp Manzanar, Gram Parsons in his final days amongst the Joshua trees. “It’s a delicate balance between exploiting that and looking for people who have a truly edgy and interesting story,” Russell says. “Tom Waits said something like, ‘I find guys on skid row more interesting than stock market agents.’ But I’ve always been interested in the individual.…I’m not a big Faulkner fan, I’m not that patient with some of his fiction, but I was interested in that part of his history where he had to go to Hollywood and write screenplays, which he abhorred, in order to pay the rent, pay his whiskey bills. If I had gone to Nashville and tried to write a hit song, the same thing would have happened to me.”
Another good example of that songwriting perspective is “Haley’s Comet”, a collaboration with Dave Alvin about one of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest heroes. “Bill Haley, at the end of the line, alone and forgotten, he ends up in a town in South Texas, wandering the streets at night. How did this happen?” Russell asks. “This was the guy that in 1954 sang the first rock ‘n’ roll song I ever heard, this cataclysmic sound.…I was intrigued in that part of the story, where he was up against the wall, bent, long gone, forgotten. Maybe the idea that America discards, or perhaps eats up its heroes very quickly and spits them out.”
Russell’s take on mainstream country, then, comes as no surprise. “As a fan of country music, somebody who was raised loving the music in the ’50s and ’60s, I’d have to say my interest in commercial country stopped in the late ’70s. In the early ’80s, modern country music really turned away from the blue-collar working-class guy. Essentially it was a white man’s blues in the ’50s through the early ’70s.…Once there was potential to cross over to big bucks and a white middle-class audience, they turned their back on the blue-collar listener and rural sounding voices weren’t acceptable on country radio. The masters I grew up with were kicked off country radio. The songs became pap, I thought, very weak-willed, Tin Pan Alley stuff.”