Tom Russell – Africa, Mexico and life on the frontier
Tom Russell is never one to hide his light under a bushel – when he thinks something he’s done is good, he’s out there talking about it. So he’s spending a lot of time talking about his new album, Blood and Candle Smoke.
“This new record has given me a lot of pleasure,” Russell says. “In the American scene when they put you in a bag like, say, Americana, they want you to stay in that bag forever. If you’re Guy Clark they want you to sound like Guy Clark forever. I realised that the only way I was going to move up and out was to create a record that was strong and had a wider ranging sound rather than a Nashville-Austin sound which began to bore me.”
The album was recorded in Tucson, Arizona, with among others members of the band Calexico. All 12 songs were written by Russell, and it tackles some parts of his life that he has mostly left out of his music until now, in particular his experiences in the late 1960s when – masters degree in criminology in hand – he went to teach in Nigeria and found himself caught up in the Biafran war. I had a gun pointed at my head on several occasions and yeah Nadine I was scared, he sings to his wife at the beginning of the song “Criminology”.
“I repressed it for a while because I thought it wouldn’t interest people,” Russell says. “But it happened and the images came to the surface. They just demanded to be dealt with ... I started thinking about it more and more and then finally writing about it.”
The other song about Russell’s experiences in Nigeria is the opening track of the album, “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam”, where Russell considers the experiences he was having while his contemporaries were either at war or at a festival.
“Here I was in West Africa during the Biafra war, completely separated from those two scenes. In a way I grew up over there, so I think I wanted to deal with it in song,” he says.
Russell believes the album is gaining him more recognition than his previous 24 records – “It’s great from my standpoint. I think it’s already in a lot of ways doubled my audience.” He is also proud that he can play every single song on the album during the course of a show, which he says hasn’t happened for a long time. He’s most proud of the song “Guadalupe” – describing the pilgrims coming to a Mexican shrine – that was recorded by Gretchen Peters on her album with Russell even before he released it himself.
“It’s not so much about religion or Catholicism as I was trying to get a fix on what was going on with these people. That’s all they had, a lot of these people, and they were there by the hundreds,” he says.
Russell lives in El Paso, Texas, just across the border with the Mexican city of Juarez – “It’s a pretty dangerous place right now. There’s a drug war going on. They’re calling it the murder capital of the world.” But he says the violence rarely spills over to the U.S. side, and the location suits him.
“I like it because it’s not Nashville, it’s not Austin, there’s no pressure on me to be anybody but who I want to be. I paint there and I write there and I work on books. It’s a fresh place to be, and I like the desert too.”
Russell’s music is rarely overtly political, but he has taken a strong stand over plans by the former U.S. administration to build a huge wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep the migrants out. His song “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” points out that migrants do all the jobs that Americans can’t or won’t do themselves – including building the wall itself.
“I think the wall was a knee-jerk reaction to the terrorist attack and the fact that our borders are open,” Russell says. “But the last people we really have to worry about are the Mexican people. They come over and do jobs Americans don’t want to do and a lot of our economy depends on these people ... Right-wing people don’t really want to hear that. They want all these people gone.”
Russell separated from his longtime lead guitarist Andrew Hardin a few years ago, and is now touring with Thad Beckman after seeing the Austin-based guitarist playing in a bar in El Paso.
“I find his playing really appropriate to what I do. A lot of guys they’ll just wait until their solo and then they’ll blow everybody away, but he just plays these solos that fit the songs. I haven’t heard anybody say they didn’t think he was a big addition to the show. He’s pretty well perfect.”
With Blood and Candle Smoke still forming the main part of his live shows, Russell has no immediate plans for a new album (though check out the audio with this interview for something new), but he is working on two books – a novel and a book of essays about the West, and on film projects.
In the meantime, he believes the strength of his songwriting is finally taking him where he believes he should be, in spite of the difficult times in the music industry.
“After all these years I can walk into any record store in the world and see my record. I may not be Springsteen, but there it is, and a guy like him can walk in and buy it. There’s still something going on out there, I think, if you’ve got something to give.
“I think if you are a strong songwriter – at least, I’m banking on this – that you can always go out and create a bigger audience. I mean look at what Leonard Cohen has done this past year ... that he comes down off the mountain after 10 years and plays 200 dates. I saw him do a three-hour show and four encores. So there is hope. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that level of audience, but it’s good to know there are 3,000 people in every city that will sit and listen to great songs for two or three hours.”
Tom Russell on Backroads