Three years ago, I had the pleasure of writing the booklet essay for The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day, Tom Russell’s 2-CD, career spanning retrospective, in which I referred to him as “the best songwriter of my generation.” It’s a conviction I’ve repeated several times since and which is only reinforced by Mesabi, yet another in his long series of masterpiece albums – albums that essentially raise and set the bar for contemporary singer-songwriters.
There are a couple of distinct, but somehow linked, song-cycles on this album. The first explores the nature of the pursuit of art, the nature of legend, and the rewards and the cruelty of fame.
The album begins with about 10 seconds of solo acoustic guitar picking out the melody line to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as an intro to “Mesabi,” the album’s folk-rock title song named for the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, the area that Bob Dylan grew up in during the 1940s and ‘50s. The song begins with a description of the kid that was the young Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing and shifts up into the 1960s and the kid who was the young Tom Russell listening to and being inspired by the troubadour kid singing “Don’t Think Twice” on his uncle’s record player.
While “Mesabi” was about the creation of a legend, it leads into “Where the Legends Die,” a literate jazz piece about the realization that legendary figures are just as human and flawed as the rest of us.
Flawed legends are the heart of the next pair of songs. “Farewell Never Never Land,” which shifts from a Stephen Foster-like intro to a folk-rock setting, tells the tragic story of Bobby Driscoll, a Disney child actor – he was the voice of Peter Pan in the classic animated version from 1953 – that grew up to be a drug addicted has-been who died of old age at 31.
Tom sings “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike,” as the song’s title character in a bouncy 1920s or ‘30s pop style. Ukulele Ike – Cliff Edwards – was a popular singer in those days, and achieved his greatest success as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. (Who can forget his classic rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star?”) Ultimately, though, Edwards died penniless, another fallen legend.
“Sterling Hayden” is a tribute, of sorts, to the tough guy actor, author and raconteur who mostly lived life on his own terms, famously expressing one major regret: naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. “I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing,” Sterling Hayden wrote years later. Tom brings a variation of that quote into the song, which he sings as both a third-person narrator and as Hayden himself. Tom’s song refers to seeing Hayden interviewed on the Johnny Carson show. I can also vividly remember a series of fascinating interviews he did in the ‘70s with Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow show.
“Furious Love (For Liz)” follows. It’s a short, sad lament for Elizabeth Taylor sung at the time of her death and recalling many years earlier when Taylor lived with husband Nicky Hilton in El Paso, across from Juarez, Mexico, long before Juarez became a battleground in the Mexican drug wars. The song is also the first hint at the direction Tom will soon move the album in.
In “A Land Called Way Out There,” set to a kind of folk-brass band arrangement featuring members of Calexico, Tom recalls the quick, early death of James Dean and then sings a new version of “Roll the Credits, Johnny,” which Tom first recorded in 2008 as one of the two new songs on The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day. The song uses the symbolism of the end of a movie to bring closure to the first of the two major song-cycles on the album.
“Heart Within a Heart,” is a beautiful, spiritual song featuring the gospel harmonies of Regina and Ann McCrary. It provides a few minutes of respite between the album’s two main thematic blocks.
Tom lives near El Paso in the West Texas borderlands just north of Mexico and he’s often written about the back-and-forth exchanges and border town interdependencies of the area. The next song-cycle is about that and is heralded in the first few bars of “And God Created Border Towns,” by the quasi-mariachi sounds of pianist Augie Meyers (legendary for his work with the late Doug Sahm, from the days of the Sir Douglas Quintet to the Texas Tornados), accordionist Joel Guzman and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets. The song lays bare the realities of the border: migrants looking for a better life are exploited and murdered by the thousands, guns flow south across border to enable the drug wars, and the drugs flow north to the seemingly insatiable American market.
“Goodnight, Juarez” is a Tex-Mex lament for Jurarez’s descent from an open tourist town to the battleground it’s become. Tom looks at contemporary Juarez and remembers the time – not that many years ago – when it was a different place and imagines how it could be again. “Juarez, I had a dream today/ The children danced, as the guitars played/ And all the violence up and slipped away/ Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight.”
“Jai Alai,” named for a once-popular sport, is a brilliant, fast-paced flamenco piece – featuring the guitar Jacob Mossman – about passion: for the game – and for love.
The borderland song-cycle draws to a close with a new version of “Love Abides,” the finale from Tom’s folk-opera, The Man from God Knows Where, an album I still consider the best, the most important, piece of work by any musical artist in the past three decades or so. It’s a beautiful song that looks at a world filled with tragedy but also filled with blessings, hope and love.
The album ends with two songs labeled as bonus tracks but which I think are a kind of restatement of the first theme Tom explores on this album.
Tom's sublime, newly definitive version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” is a duet with Lucinda Williams on top of an atmospheric arrangement by the musicians of Calexico that brings us back to the Mesabi Iron Range. The song seems as fresh and as topical now as when the troubadour kid wrote it almost half a century ago.
The finale, “The Road to Nowhere,” written for the new Monte Hellman film, Road to Nowhere (“Roll the Credits, Johnny” is also used in the film), could be about almost any of the fallen heroes and legends in the songs sung earlier in the album – or not yet written about.
I’ve mentioned a few of the musicians Tom uses on this album. Among other great contributors worth noting are pianist Barry Walsh, who co-produced the album with Tom; multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, who played in Tom’s band back in the 1980s; guitarist Thad Beckman, who tours with him now; legendary pianist and studio arranger Van Dyke Parks; and harmony singer Gretchen Peters.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, Mesabi is another in Tom Russell’s long series of masterpiece albums – all of them different from each other, all of them layered to reveal more with each hearing. And, I’ll say it one more time: Tom Russell is the best songwriter of my generation – the generation that followed 10 or 12 years after Dylan.
By the way, I’m not sure how long it will be there, but tomrussell.com is currently giving away free downloads of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Mesabi is scheduled for release on September 6.