Tom Russell – Play One More: The Songs Of Ian & Sylvia
True North Records – 2017
One thing you can say about Tom Russell is that you never know what’s going to come next. Over the course of nigh on 30 albums he’s more than proved himself as a songwriter, but for this writer, it’s his forays into concepts and collaborations that stand out. Hotwalker was a fine salute to Charles Bukowski and The Beats, Blood & Candle Smoke paired him up with the mighty Calexico and his last album, The Rose Of Roscrae, was an almost cinematic epic that rode the spirit of The West with a host of names in tow. On Play One More Russell celebrates the songs of Ian & Sylvia Tyson, the Canadian folk duo who were there at the start of the Greenwich Village folk boom and who also were early starters in the country rock stakes in the early seventies.
For most folk (in the UK at least) mention of Ian & Sylvia probably summons up their song Four Strong Winds, probably via the Neil Young version on Comes A Time but Russell notes that he’s been listening to them for 40 years and that he wanted to celebrate their lesser-known numbers (so there are no Four Strong Winds here). In addition, he has co-written songs and produced albums for the now separated pair along with co-editing a book of song quotes with Sylvia, so it’s fair to assume he has a firm handle on their oeuvre, the album acting as a tribute but also a fine introduction to the pair’s music.
Russell keeps it simple, his voice and guitar accompanied only by Grant Siemens on lead acoustic and electric guitar and Cindy Church on harmony vocals. As such he recalls the early purity of the village vanguarders before they switched on to rock’n’roll although some of the songs here are quite punchy. In addition, and as he writes in the liner notes, he wants to capture the Tysons ability to capture the Canadian landscape, but there’s no escaping his authoritative voice in some of the selections. Rio Grande has the heat haze of a Tex-Mex border ballad with Siemens playing in a corrido style while Old Cheyenne salutes the cowboys of yore with Russell as sonorous as John Stewart. These songs reflect Ian Tyson’s shift towards documenting the cowboy lifestyle after his split with Sylvia and fit Russell like a bespoke suit, but he’s well able to carry off the earlier material with some aplomb. Short Grass is a sixties song, but again it’s about the West with Russell and Church harmonising excellently, but it’s the opening song, Wild Geese, that really captures that Canadian landscape mentioned in the liner notes with its wintry feel and mentions of “fresh otter tracks in the snow.” Red Velvet is an old fashioned ‘she up and left me’ song with a dirt road farmer bewailing his wife who set off for the bright lights dressed in her best and its delivered with a Johnny Cash chicka boom beat. The Renegade finds Russell switching sides from the cowpokes to Native Americans as Ian Tyson writes of a warrior holed up on a mountain with the law moving in, a fine indication that he was ahead of the curve when it came to acknowledging some of the injustices of the land of the brave. Sylvia Tyson’s The Night The Chinese Restaurant Burned Down is given an excellent and respectful outing with Russell at his best narrative self while Ian Tyson’s Play One More is a powerful capture of a musician’s life on the road with Russell bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t got the Mariachi horns onboard to replicate the original.
Russell includes two co-writes with the Tysons. Thrown To The Wolves (with Sylvia), with some muscular guitar from Siemens, commiserates in a rousing manner with heartbroken lovers thrown into the streets along with the other losers and fools. When The Wolves No Longer Sing (written with Ian) featured on Russell’s Rose Of Roscrea with Gretchen Peters singing, but here Russell takes ownership with a much gutsier rendition. He explains the song as a cry out to writers and singers to keep on carrying the torch, and it rounds the album off with a fine valedictory feel.
Except, the album doesn’t end there. Appended are two previously unreleased demos from the actual Ian & Sylvia. Grey Morning is a short bluesy number sung by Sylvia that recalls the likes of Maria Muldaur. The French Girl has Ian singing and, for some, might be the most fascinating number here as it’s probably the earliest delivery of a magnificent song that was eventually covered by Gene Clark and here it has a wonderfully faded folk baroque grandeur.