Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tom Russell – Museum of Memories Vol. 2: 1973-2013

Museum of Memories Vol. 2: 1973-2013
Frontera Records

I’m on record as saying I think Tom Russell is the best singer-songwriter of my generation – the generation that came along 10 or 15 years after Bob Dylan bussed into New York from Minnesota and went to see Woody Guthrie in the hospital almost 53 years ago.

Tom has been incredibly prolific over the years turning out album after album – many of them brilliant concept albums – of stellar songs. And, like Dylan, there’s been a significant output of great Tom Russell songs that for whatever reasons have not been included on his official albums or on the limited edition bonus EPs that he’s released over the years.

Back in 2002, Ed Becker and John Yuelkenbeck assembled Museum of Memories 1972-2002, a collection of previously unreleased rarities, including demos and live tracks, most of which were great songs. Eleven years later, John has put together a second collection – Museum of Memories Vol. 2: 1973-2013 – that is chock full of more great material.

I know Tom’s music pretty well and there are only a few here that I’ve ever heard before: “Small Engine Repair,” a 2001 radio performance that was offered as a download bonus to people who bought the lyric book to Borderland; Tom singing a live version of “The Outcast,” which was originally sung by Dave Van Ronk on The Man from God Knows Where, Tom’s great folk-opera; and the two songs here that Tom didn’t write, the Irish song, “Fields of Athenry,” that I know from versions by Danny Doyle and Petra Haden, and the Mexican “Cancion Mixteca,” which is performed in a medley with the spoken “Donkey Show,” an early version of what evolved into “Border Lights” on the fascinating Hotwalker, Tom’s brilliantly-conceived audio collage of songs, poetry and spoken word that paid tribute to great, but seemingly lost aspects of American culture.
So most all of these 21 songs running some 76 minutes were new to me – and I bet that if they’re new to me, they’ll be new to almost everyone else reading this review. The album is sequenced in reverse chronological order beginning with a new recording of “Old Saltillo Road,” a co-write with Greg Trooper from the 1980s, about Elvis Presley and his boyhood home. The version included on the CD was recorded at a recent sound check. The always excellent Thad Beckman, Tom’s guitarist of the last several years is heard with him on this song. A superb musician, Thad is a most worthy successor to the great Andrew Hardin, who played with Tom for about 25 years and is heard on many of these tracks.

I mentioned Hotwalker, Tom’s exploration of lost aspects of American culture – a theme he’s returned to frequently over the years. That song about Elvis is certainly part of that body of work along with several other great songs here including “In the American Grain,” which reflects on American culture and American folksongs; “The Coat Hank Williams Wore,” a deservedly critical song inspired by a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and “Neighbors (Bill and Joan),” about the bizarre 1951 killing of Joan Vollmer by her husband, the beat writer William S. Burroughs.

A few other highlights include “de Kooning,” inspired by the life of the artist Willem de Kooning; “Business End of the Blues,” a co-write with Katy Moffatt that's done as a duet with Amos Garrett;  and the poignant “John Doe Mexican,” which could be about so many of the anonymous refugees that have come north over the Rio Grande (and which reminds me of those until-recently nameless deportees that Woody Guthrie wrote about).

Museum of Memories Vol. 2: 1973-2013 is a limited release available only at Tom’s concerts and online at Village Records. You can download the liner notes at this link.

Pictured: “The Upside Down Cowboys,” a Tom Russell painting hanging in my living room, and me and Tom, backstage at Petit Campus in Montreal, November 2012.

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. Thank you for your review, I've just had a look on Amazon and there are a lot of albums. Where is a good place to start in buying Tom ?

  2. The best place to start is probably "Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology," a 2-CD retrospective that includes songs from all of Tom's albums up until 2008. That should point you in further directions.

  3. Thank you for the advice, I'll give it a go.