Geography and imagination are funny things. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott lives in California, but he grew up in Brooklyn. Tom Russell grew up California, but he lives in Brooklyn (or he did for many years before a recent relocation to West Texas). And both fancy themselves cowboys. On the liner notes inside Russell’s new disc, subtitled The Cowboy Collection, Elliott writes: “[Russell] evokes a mood of being there, whether it be a cockfight, a Navajo Rug love song, or a night when two bandits walk into the wrong bar…It’s the West of our forefathers, the West of our dreams.”
At heart, Russell is a storyteller. And the 15 tales that make up Song Of The West are cinematic in scope — kind of John Ford meets Marty Robbins. He finds some choice tunes to cover, among them Frasier and De Bolt’s “Dance Hall Girls”, Big Sur novelist Lillian Bos-Ros’ “South Coast”, Steve Young’s adaptation of Steven Vincent Benet’s poem “The Ballad Of William Sycamore”, and Mary McCaslin’s “Prairie In The Sky”.
Russell also reprises several of his own best compositions, which gain new power in this context. “Gallo Del Cielo” (recorded recently by Joe Ely) is the saga of a poor Mexican cockfighter who steals a prize rooster and crosses the border to seek his fortune in the U.S. Needless to say, it has a sad ending. Bittersweet best describes “Navajo Rug” (recorded many years ago by Jerry Jeff Walker), Russell’s perennial lost love lament about a Colorado waitress named Katie. And “Claude Dallas” (written with Ian Tyson) recounts the true life and tragic death of a renegade loner.
All in all, as Elliott explains, this an album to be savored on a rainy road trip, or holed up in a mountain cabin with a bottle of mescal, or some other wild place where outlaws and rounders can cut loose in the sagebrush of the mind.