Tom Russell – Folk Hotel
Proper Records – 8 September 2017
Is there such a thing as a typical Tom Russell album these days? The answer is probably yes and no. He’s released around 28 albums since his debut in 1976, and initially, they were straightforward collections of songs in the country and folk tradition with songs of cowboys, the West and the Mexican border often featuring. He soon gained an impressive reputation as a songwriter with artists such as Johnny Cash, Guy Clark and Dave Alvin recording his songs and as his career progressed the albums began to centre around themes be it celebrations of cowboy folklore or the borderland tales on The Rose Of The San Joaquin, released in 1995.
In 1999 he unleashed what is now considered as the first of what has been called his Americana Trilogy, The Man From God Knows Where, an album that told a story of sorts and which was peopled with a cast of other voices including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This was followed in 2005 by Hotwalker and then 2015’s The Rose of Roscrae, hailed by some as his masterpiece. The three albums delved into the past with Russell variously looking back to his roots in Norway and Ireland and singing of the drive to populate the West and celebrating outsider culture be it in literature, movies or American myths.
The expansive vision of these albums is helped by the fact that Russell is something of a polymath. A painter and author (books on Charles Bukowski and the American West along with a detective novel) in addition to his musical work, he also has a degree in criminology, spent time teaching in Africa in the midst of a civil war at the tail end of the sixties and travelled widely before commencing his musical career. Elements of all of these experiences pepper his albums and he remains restless and unpredictable, his careworn voice the one staple on recent releases such as Blood And Candle Smoke, recorded with Calexico and Aztec Jazz which saw him fronting The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.
Play One More: The Songs Of Ian And Sylvia, released just two months ago found Russell paying tribute to the Tysons, long time friends and mentors. It was a stripped back recording with Russell backed only by Grant Siemens on guitar and Folk hotel might be considered a companion piece although one more intricately woven. Speaking to No Depression Russell commented, “This (Play One More) was a pared back ‘60s style record of their songs. Me sitting with a guitar singing songs, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Usually, the process is quite complicated. It worked for the Ian and Sylvia record, so I wanted to try it with my own songs”. Thus we have Russell here for the most part unaccompanied with only occasional piano and accordion (from Augie Meyers and Joel Guzman) appearing along with vocal support from Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely.
His fictitious Folk Hotel (a nod to the infamous Beat Hotel in Paris?) is populated by musicians, authors and poets who have influenced Russell – the dedication in the liner notes reads, “My mind is an old folk hotel in the Village, haunted by troubadour ghosts who sang songs that will never escape my soul”. In terms of the music, this is a bit of a McGuffin as Russell’s Hotel concept is in the main confined to a book included in the deluxe edition. However, the album drips with memories of these ghosts while Russell adds a couple of songs that pertain to his current domicile in Santa Fe.
Up In The Old Hotel opens the album and is clearly inspired by The Chelsea Hotel with Russell singing of one-time resident Dylan Thomas and meeting the ghost of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in its corridors. Mitchell, who wrote of people on the fringes of society, published a book called Up In The Old Hotel before suffering three decades of writer’s block. With Guzman’s accordion adding some colour, Russell waxes on the dilapidated state of the hotel and its adjoining bar ending the song by imagining he is out on a balcony reciting T.S. Eliot‘s Prufrock. The scene rapidly shifts to the southwest for the Ranchero styled Leaving El Paso which is ostensibly about his move from El Paso to Santa Fe following the conquistadors’ Jornada del Muerto with references to Marty Robbins‘ famous song in the passing. It’s classic Russell, a style he’s most comfortable in with Guzman’s accompaniment and harmonies from Gilkyson it’s a wonderfully evocative song.
I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses harks back to the sound and subject of the previous album as it concerns Ian Tyson who has been tempted to leave the cold climes of Alberta for the warmer Santa Fe. He can’t however as he still has some horses up there, so he’s waiting for them to pass on before moving. Russell transforms this noble thought into an excellent song that has a hint of Kris Kristofferson about it; it’s gritty, poetic and moving and almost the highlight of the album. Russell returns to Santa Fe later on with The Light Beyond The Coyote Fence which describes his adobe home as a refuge from the road amidst the constant travelling and singing for his supper but for the remainder of the album he roams further afield as he chases his ghosts and his memories.
The Sparrow Of Swansea is a eulogy to Dylan Thomas with a melody reminiscent of Streets Of London while All On A Belfast Morning opens with Russell reciting a poem by Belfast poet James Cousins (which Russell first heard from Liam Clancy) before he launches into a spirited folk diatribe which has some echoes of Dylan and Dave Van Ronk. There’s more of Ireland on the triad that opens with Russell’s poem, I Helped Them Drain The Liffey, a nod to Brendan Behan which then moves into sea shanty territory with the Banks Of Montauk and The Road To Santa Fe-O. Still in Celtic territory, Russell turned to a 16th Century dictionary of Irish/Scots slang for the lyrics to The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane which comes across like a traditional folk song that would have warmed the cockles of any Bleeker St. coffee house audience back in the day.
As befits an album informed by the folk denizens of Greenwich Village some of the best moments come when it’s just Russell and his guitar with only fleeting accompaniment. He sings of Hank Williams and George Jones in The Last Time I Saw Hank and delivers a very fine talking blues on The Rooftops Of Copenhagen. The epitome here is the lengthy Scars On His Ankles which is about an encounter between Lightnin’ Hopkins and journalist Grover Lewis with Russell inhabiting the acoustic blues excellently while his singing and narration paint a perfect picture. Russell accords the penthouse suite in his imaginary hotel to Bob Dylan and with Joe Ely in tandem he offers up a sweet cover of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, his favourite Dylan song with Russell writing, “I can picture Dylan walking through the backstreets of Juarez, drunk, ripped off by a hooker, abandoned by his friends—vowing to make it back to New York alive.”
To go back to the original question, is this a typical Tom Russell album? Well, yes, in that it’s bold, imaginative and erudite, and no, in that Russell is unpredictable and who knows what he’ll come up with next. In the meantime, Folk Hotel is an impressive work with an intriguing premise, however, the best moment on the album seems to be divorced from the hotel concept. Harlan Clancy is a fiction of Russell’s, an everyman living in the “America of shit jobs, farms, remote ranches, wrecking yards, inner city brothels, shooting galleries, used car lots.” In telling Clancy’s tale Russell sums up the despair of many of his compatriots with empathy, describing them thus, “They are not Woody Guthrie or Phil Ochs. They are not that articulate. But they are human, and they’ll be with you in the lifeboat when the chips are down, and political correctness can’t save your ass. From all sides. No matter how or if they voted.” Here Russell cuts to the core of the current American predicament with sagacity and one imagines that his heroes and ghosts would concur.
Folk Hotel is ultimately another reason to celebrate Tom Russell and his ongoing quest to keep alive the culture and traditions of American dreamers. Poking at the underbelly, praising the unconventional and ultimately kicking against the pricks he’s up there with the likes of Studs Terkel. The album is an excellent collection of songs played in his inimitable style and a fine tribute to his heroes.
Order Folk Hotel here: http://smarturl.it/folk-hotel
To celebrate the release of Folk Hotel we recently asked Tom to put together a playlist of 10 songs that he would play on the stereo of his imaginary ‘Folk Hotel’. To listen and read about his selection head here: http://www.folkradio.co.uk/2017/08/10-songs-tom-russell-folk-hotel/