Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tom Russell – The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West
Frontera Records

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West is the third in a series of extraordinary concept albums Tom Russell has delivered in addition to the many other superb albums he’s recorded over the past three decades.

The first release in what should now be regarded as a trilogy was The Man from God Knows Where, a brilliant folk opera, released in 1999, about immigration and the American dream partially based on Tom’s own Irish and Norwegian ancestors and the generations that followed. Then came the equally-brilliant Hotwalker, released in 2005, an audio collage of original songs, poetry, stories, rants and outside voices that paid tribute to forgotten aspects of real American culture.

Expanding on the forms he developed in the two earlier works, The Rose of Roscrae, running two-and-a-half hours on two CDs, is perhaps Tom’s most ambitious work yet, a folk opera whose plot, although fictional, incorporates ideas and experiences drawn from a number of historical figures and from Tom’s real life sister-in-law who spent decades running a ranch on her own.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of the main protagonist, Johnny Dutton, an old man looking back on a life of adventure and misadventure that began in Ireland in the 1880s when the teenaged Johnny is beaten up by his girlfriend’s father and he escapes to America to become a cowboy and outlaw in what was by then the rapidly dying old west.

As the plot unfolds, Johnny works as a cowboy for the legendary real life trail boss Charles Goodnight, escapes the gallows with the help of a crooked judge, reunites with his Irish girlfriend, Rose Malloy – the Rose of Roscrae – and then marries and loses her due his philandering ways, outruns the lawman/preacher on his trail, and becomes enraptured with the story of Father Damien and his leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Johnny’s travels also take him south into Mexico and north up to Canada. As a prisoner in Louisiana and Texas he encounters the likes of Lead Belly and other prison singers recorded by folklorists like John and Alan Lomax.

Other parts of the story are told through the eyes of Rose. How she follows Johnny to the American west, marries him, throws him out, and spends decades as a woman alone running her ranch. Some of the specific things that happen to her are based on the experiences of Tom’s sister-in-law, Claudia Russell.

Eventually, the elderly Rose returns to Ireland and Johnny follows – no longer as her husband, but as her old friend.

Tom’s performances are riveting throughout the long piece. So, too, are the other singers who take on various roles in the folk opera. These include Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Jimmy LaFave, Thad Beckman, Sourdough Slim, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, and Gretchen Peters. The orchestral overture, incorporating melodies from traditional folksongs, is played beautifully by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, the orchestra that Tom collaborated with a couple of years ago on the Aztec Jazz album.

There is an embarrassment of riches among the songs Tom composed for The Rose of Roscrae but I’ll mention that some of the standout moments include Tom’s performances of “The Rose of Roscrae,” “Johnny Behind the Deuce,” the several soliloquys, “Poor Mother Mexico” “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water),” and “The Bear,” sung as a duet with Eliza Gilkyson.

Two of the most stunning performances are by Maura O’Connell singing “I Talk to God” and Gretchen Peters singing “When the Wolves No Longer Sing.”

As well as vehicle to tell the story through about 25 new songs written or co-written by Tom for The Rose of Roscrae, the piece also serves as a homage to traditional folksongs and to the singers who sang them on field and commercial recordings – as well as to some contemporary singers and songwriters who have added to the tradition. Among the borrowed voices we hear singing songs or fragments of songs are Johnny Cash, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jack Hardy & David Massengill, Tex Ritter, A.L. Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Blackie Farrell, Ross Knox, Glenn Ohrlin, Henry Real Bird, John Trudell, Ana Gabriel, Ian Tyson, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark and Dan Penn.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Russell in Montreal (2012).
In addition to the 2-CD set, Tom has released an almost essential companion book which includes the folk opera’s libretto, as well as extensive background information on the piece, all of the songs and the many contributors.

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West is yet another masterwork by Tom Russell. It is a work of rare ambition and rare brilliance that is beautifully and artfully executed. Bravo to Tom and to his many collaborators on this project.

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--Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done. Although I'm a longtime fan of Russell, I was a bit apprehensive after hearing about the length of this project. But your review makes the album sound intriguing, and now I can't wait to hear it.

    I've been a Russell fan since the days when I'd see him perform at New York City's Rodeo Bar in the late '80s. He's one of those artists who's truly gotten better with age, as I think his more recent albums are the best in his catalog. The guy isn't afraid to challenge himself. A great artist.