Over eighteen albums, balladeer Tom Russell has written lasting songs that have been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash to Doug Sahm, and sung them in a smooth, cleanly enunciated baritone that make even his collections of songs by others compelling. He’s been devoted to all things Americana, shown especially on theme albums about cowboy life, the immigrant experience and other historical subjects.
Two albums ago, on 2003′s Modern Art, a certain crotchety nostalgia started to set in, mixed with a seeming obliviousness about the effect — as in the title song, which informed us of the astounding piece of information that “in 1964, The Beatles came.” Nostalgia and artiness by period reference is the very stuff of this new CD, which is not a collection of songs but a 70-minute sound pastiche of spoken recitations, old audio clips, and a bit of music, self-described as “A Ballad for a Gone America.” It’s a cut-and-paste catalogue of outsiders which might as well have been titled “Where Have All The Beatniks Gone?”
Surely there is some irony in “wasn’t that a time” salutes to the likes of Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac and so on, who, if they stood for anything, stood for living in the moment, not wallowing in backtracking. These are also some highly unforgotten outsiders to salute; the “Gone America” notion seems to suggest a Harry Smith-style relocation mission, but Smith retrieved old records that his audience didn’t know. Russell’s “old, wanted-to-be-weird” America would seem to be familiar, and previously oversaluted, for anybody that will hear this.
Where there’s imagery, it’s of tramps and thieves, drunken Indians, and carnival clowns. You figure there just must be a dwarf in this predictable sideshow too, until you realize that the fellow with the high-pitched voice recalling experiences on several tracks is, in fact, a dwarf — and he’s got stories of (what else?) getting plastered with Charles Bukowski.
Well, maybe they don’t make self-romanticizing, self-destructive, brooding guys like they used to. And it is guys we’re talking about here, by the way; the lost heroes are virtually all men, and at one point we get nodding approval of a Bukowski comment that “women are of importance only when you can’t get them.”
Amidst such stuff, two new Russell songs bubble up that are to-the-point and memorable — one about Buck Owens, the other a sweet, catchy salute to Woody Guthrie that rivals Dylan’s and Earle’s.
The nostalgic recitations that take up more of the time here, however, soon descend into outright lists of names. That may be fodder for some cable-TV look at those fabulous ’50s and ’60s, and the total aural package here for a one-time Public Radio special; but it’s hard to see how much of it, besides those two songs, will be the stuff of anybody’s repeated plays or memories.