Without doubt, the western has all but disappeared from country music over the last few decades, replaced by late C20th and C21st century mores as Nashville realigns itself as the pop-music capital of America. Few of its stars wear a Stetson anymore and for the males at least, it’s more likely to be about premature hair loss if they do. So what happened to the music that once had a whole sub-genre called Outlaw country? That very epithet echoed the enduring fascination with the anti-heroes of the silver screen, even if its meaning was slightly more subversive. Well, not everyone has given up on the mythology and in the distance a long rider is moseying into town, dust on his chaps and coat collar turned against the wind that ghosts behind him. Tom Russell, a gunslinger, wise beyond the notches on his trusty pair of Colt 45s, reaches the smithy on the end of main-street and the overture to The Rose of Roscrae strikes up in the background as our story has begun.
Okay, so perhaps all that has really happened is that the western part of country music has slipped into Americana, a musical genre that is of itself hard to corral, although Tom Russell is widely acknowledged, alongside Dave Alvin, as one of the founding fathers. For Tom and others, Americana has become the musical outpost for an amalgam of roots music stylings, which pay due homage to the folksong and folklore of America’s past. Both were something of an obsession for Tom when growing up, which when added to the horse riding, ranch-steading branch of his family tree and his own natural gift for storytelling, puts him square in the frame as the ideal orator to rekindle the stories of western mythos. But as he throws his 10 gallon hat into the ring, any which way you look at it– folk opera, Broadway musical, new ballads for the old west – this is a hugely ambitious work, unlike anything else, astonishing in its own right, peppered with equal measures of sly humour and heartbreak and above all, a masterpiece.
Some of you will already recognise the borderlands’ genius of Tom Russell through his recent sequence of studio albums, Mesabi released in 2011, Blood And Candle Smoke from two years earlier, Love And Fear from 2006 and the absolutely incredible compilation of older material that made up Veterans Day in 2008. There’s also Aztec Jazz, the live album that was recorded with The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, a crowd pleasing set, thoughtfully orchestrated, that manages to throw a unique spin onto his Americana songs and also connect to Tom’s migrant family roots at the same time.
Those roots are something that he documented on The Man From God Knows Where, released in 1999, an album that to some degree set the template here. Thematically recorded in Norway close to where his grandfather was born this ambitious album set out a song cycle documenting the journeys made by Russell’s forebears from Europe to America and their struggles and triumphs. It mixed in some Irish folk music, making reference to another Tom Russell, an Irish activist, executed at the start of C19th. The recording also made use of different voices with the likes of Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, Dave Van Ronk and Kari Bremnes playing characters within the unfolding story.
There’s also Hotwalker, released in 2005, another conceptual work and the centre piece of what has now become a trilogy. Again Russell was after a different take on the American story and here focussed on the Beat generation, with the album subtitled, A Ballad for Gone America. A lot of the material came directly from Russell’s own correspondence with Charles Bukowski and featured the voice of that author’s friend, the circus midget Little Jack Horton, with samples of Lenny Bruce and writer, activist and environmentalist Edward Abbey. It’s probably fair to call this the most challenging of the triptych, although in context, it makes perfect sense and shares some of the techniques used to make The Rose Of Roscrae.
It’s also worth pointing you at the shop on Tom’s website, where you can pick up Tonight We Ride, a collection of his cowboy songs from previous releases, as I guess it proves the consistency of his vision and perhaps offers a few clues into the workings that have led us to this release.
Those who are ahead of the game will realise that The Rose Of Roscrae is a 2 CD set with a track list that runs to 52, although many are short or linking segments. It’s a considerable two and half hours from start to finish, but don’t let that put you off. Hell, that time frame gets you half an hour beyond the half way point of the director’s cut of Dances With Wolves, or two and a half episodes of Bonanza – which are doubtless being recycled somewhere – and The Rose Of Roscrae is a good deal more fun, more special and more involving than either of the above. It has to be said here, however, that a blow by blow account of this epic opus isn’t realistic, so this review will concentrate on the broad brush approach, perhaps akin to Tom’s own paintings.
You could argue that the western has fallen out of favour not just with country music, but also in the medium it used to dominate. So the mention of Bonanza may strike a chord with a certain generation, taking us back to a time when the western stories of cowboys, ranch hands, rustlers and ne’er-do-wells filled the big and small screens and the imaginations of the majority of pre-teen boys. The genre sprouted many branches, made stars of some great actors and produced some real classics. Although the stories often had a subtext and Bonanza might surprise with its treatment of contemporary issues, civil rights and prejudice amongst them, the basic formula of diffident outsiders turned hero or anti-hero, good versus evil morality, and thereby, ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ plotlines were already well established by the dime novels that were printed in their thousands during the latter part of C19th and beyond.
Whilst there have been some very good and interesting modern westerns, Lonesome Dove and Deadwood both spring to mind, portraying a gritty reality that also adds bite to this story, The Rose Of Roscrae is directly fuelled by those dime novels. Indeed the narrative finds Johnny Dutton, a 16 year old Irish lad, having just taken a beating from Rose’s father to discourage his amorous advances, taking inspirations from the stories he has read rapaciously to head for America, seeking adventure and the chance to prove himself a man. There he lives up to his dream, working as a ranch hand, before buying a pistol and hitting the outlaw trail, know from then on as Johnny Behind The Deuce, Irish John and various other nicknames befitting a wrangler, gambler and gunslinger.
The narrative thread of this work plays with the timelines and opens in midstream, with Johnny about to be hung on trumped-up horse stealing charges. He escapes thanks to the corrupt Judge Squig, but not before Tom has had fun with the last words of the condemned man. It helps to have the book, or Program Guide With Libretto as the cover bills it, an entertaining thing of itself, although it is still possible to make sense of story line, or at least invent your own, through the spoken passages, soliloquies and the different singers and musicians who give voice to the complex roll call of characters.
Those other musicians include some Americana greats including Jimmie Dale Gilmour, David Olney, Joe Ely, Fats Kaplin, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Gurf Morlix and regular Russell sidekick Thad Beckman. There are some more veteran names too, although Guy Clark belongs to that first run down and this, but Augie Meyers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dan Penn, Maura O’Connell and the English Resident, Canadian born, early Dylan contemporary Bonnie Dobson add their legendary status. There are also samples of Johnny Cash, Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt, Walt Whitman, Lead Belly and others from beyond the grave.
There’s a backing band too with bassist David Roe, multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough, guitarist Doug Lancio, with John Mock on whistles and accordion and drummers Rick Lonow and John Gardner. The latter has played with Gretchen Peters, whose superb Blackbirds we featured here. She’s collaborated with Tom before and does indeed contribute significantly here, although it’s her husband Barry Walsh who has the bigger credit as co-producer and keys player throughout.
It wouldn’t be fair to give you the full story, besides, Tom has two CDs and a whole book to do that, but suffice to say that Rose has also been lured across the Atlantic, married to Johnny and jilted, so the trials of love, betrayal and the wounded parties quest for redemption, is the path that we follow, although saying that, this works on all sorts of levels. Act Two, subtitled Love Is The Last Frontier, shifts the narrative to Rose’s perspective, which given that women in westerns tended to be a combination of trouble, the token eye-candy and love interest amidst the dust, unreliable schemers, of dubious morals and employment status, or worse still the femme fatale, this is a bold move.
In the story telling mix of dialogue and drama are some great Tom Russell songs, as good as anything he’s written. The dramatic and haunting title track powerfully invokes the Irish spirit in our story and the beating that send Johnny on his way. Hair Trigger Heart links the gunslingers show downs with battles with the bottle and the wounds left by love. The rocking He Wasn’t A Bad Kid When He Was Sober documents the psychopath as, “Dysfunctional, ill abused, White trash, plum confused, He’d cheat at cards and tip the table over.”
There are signs of redemption in the powerful and emotive I Talk To God sung by Maura O’Connell although, “The road from anger to forgiveness is a long and brutal journey.” There’s a gospel tinge to Resurrection Mountain, which Tom acknowledges was inspired by Van Morrison, and which suggests that journey has begun.
Tom co-wrote When The Wolves No Longer Sing with Ian Tyson as a prayer for the dying wilderness and natural songs of the changing country, in the hope that they will return. Tom credits Ian with almost single-handedly reviving the cowboy songs through the 80s and counts him as a major influence, It’s brilliantly sung by Gretchen Peters and there’s another female voice as Eliza Gilkyson duets on the rockabilly gospel mash up of Jesus Met The Woman At The Well.
Doin’ Hard Time In Texas is an amped up slice of slide guitar driven angst, while Midnight Wine subtitled White Lies And Cold Chardonnay takes gentle solace in the bottle and Tularosa dips south of the border for a touch of Tex-Mex. The also a moving tribute to Guy Clark, who wraps with gnarled voice and fingers around a verse of Desparado’s Waiting For A Train, which Dan Penn then finishes. The song seems to have found its natural home.
As demanding as this may appear, The Rose Of Roscrae is also hugely enjoyable and a game changer it could just be and the single most important Americana release of all time. As Tom himself humorously suggests, just think of it as Les Misérables with cowboy hats.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Proper Records
Order it via ProperMusic