Friday, November 14, 2014

Tom Russell – Midway to Bayamon; Tonight We Ride; The Western Years

Tom Russell – who I’ve often referred to as the finest singer-songwriter of my generation, the songwriters who emerged 10 to 15 years after Bob Dylan – will release his latest folk opera, The Rose of Roscrae, next year. It’s an album I fully expect to be one of the major folk-rooted or folk-branched releases of 2015. This year’s three releases from Tom are trips into the archives – one of them an essential addition to the Tom Russell discography; the other two fine introductions or reminders of his contributions to contemporary cowboy culture.

Midway to Bayamon
Frontera Records 

The essential release is Midway to Bayamon, a 25-song, 80-minute, collection of rarities recorded between 1982 and 1992. Most of the tracks on Midway are taken from two cassette-only releases that were sold at gigs back in the day, As the Crow Flies from 1985 and Joshua Tree from 1987, both featuring the Tom Russell Band, a crackerjack unit that included such great musicians as guitarist Andrew Hardin and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin. There are also a couple of tracks released as 45s back in the day, a Kerrville Folk Festival campfire recording, and some previously unreleased recordings.

While I know many of these songs from other Tom Russell albums, it’s a treat to hear first versions of such great songs like “The Road to Bayamon,” “Navajo Rug” and “Mezcal,” and several songs I’d never heard before including “Common Strangers,” “A Cajun Lullaby,” “The Lady Loves the Gambler,” which could have been a sequel to Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer’s “Ballad of Weaverville,” “Lights of Oslo,” which I hear as a different chapter in the story that gave us “St. Olav’s Gate,” and “Juarez, A Polka Town,” a cool Tex-Mex instrumental that foreshadows one of the musical directions Tom would go down years later.

Among the other highlights from Midway to Bayamon are a version of “Denver Wind,” a song from Tom’s duo years in the ‘70s with Patricia Hardin that he sings in duet with Nanci Griffith, and “Amelia’s Railroad Flat,” a song of Tom’s that’s best known through the singing of Katy Moffatt.

Tonight We Ride: The Tom Russell Cowboy Anthology
Frontera Records

 Cowboy songs have long been an important facet of Tom’s repertoire and Tonight We Ride: The Tom Russell Cowboy Anthology is a compelling 19-song, 78-minute collection including classics like “Navajo Rug” and “Gallo del Cielo,” both done here as duets with Ian Tyson, “The Sky Above, the Mud Below,” heard here as a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the hilarious “Tonight We Ride,” “The Banks of the Musselshell,” “Zane Grey” and “Alkali.”

Also included are great versions of several great songs Tom didn’t write including Lillian Bos Ross and Sam Eskin’s “South Coast,” a song that likely inspired Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer to write the aforementioned “Ballad of Weaverville,” Joe Ely’s “Indian Cowboy,” and the traditional “El Llano Estacado.”

The version of “El Llano Estacado” is a duet with Brian Burns I’d never heard before. There are also previously unreleased versions of several songs including “The Rose of the San Joaquin,” “Rayburn Crane” and “Alberta Blue,” a song inspired by the province of my birth that I don’t recall ever hearing before.

The Western Years
RockBeat Records

The Western Years is a 2-CD, 34-song collection – including several overlaps from Tonight We Ride – that includes both cowboy songs and other songs set in the west.

Most of the recordings come from Tom Russell albums of the past 15 or so years including several from The Man from God Knows Where, Tom’s 1999 folk opera that I still consider to be the best folk album of the past 25 or more years. There are also live versions of several songs including the always exciting “Gallo del Cielo.”

While most of the songs are Tom’s originals, there are a number of definitive covers including Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Woody Guthrie’s “East Texas Red,” Allan Fraser’s “Dance Hall Girls,” a classic from the Montreal folk scene of the early-1970s, Jim Ringer’s rewrite of the traditional “Tramps & Hawkers,” Steve Young’s setting of Steven Vincent Benet’s poem “Ballad of William Sycamore,” Mary McCaslin’s “Prairie in the Sky,” and a pair of great Bob Dylan songs: the relatively obscure “Seven Curses,” which feels like a traditional folk song, and the epic “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” on which Tom trades verses with Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely.

For the uninitiated, either or both of Tonight We Ride and The Western Years will make a great introduction to the cowboy and western sides of Tom’s writing and repertoire. Although not essential to Russell fans who have the original albums these songs are drawn from, they still make for great listening. And the alternate versions of some of the songs make them feel fresh even for folks like me who know these songs backward and forward.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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