Saturday, June 2, 2018

Tom Russell – Old Songs Yet to Sing

Old Songs Yet to Sing
Frontera Records

Old Songs Yet to Sing is a reunion album. A reunion of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, virtuoso guitarist Andrew Hardin – and 20 of the songs they used to play together.

Tom and Andy were an extraordinary team for about 25 or 26 years. They started playing together, circa 1980, and were at the heart of The Tom Russell Band for some years and an acoustic duo for many more. Their musical integration – on stage and on recordings – was remarkable.

Tom is one of the most prolific songwriters I know – I’ve referred to him more than once as “the best songwriter of my generation” – with an output of many great songs and brilliantly conceived albums. Last year he released two great albums, a tribute album, Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia, and Folk Hotel, two of my favorite records of 2017. He’s also never been shy about revisiting older material – those “old songs yet to sing” – in new ways that makes them seem fresh and new again.

Well after a decade of not touring or recording together, Tom and Andy reunited at Congress House Studio in Austin, Texas for two days in February to record new versions of 20 songs they used to play back in the day – songs Tom wrote or co-wrote between 1974 and 2004.

It’s just the two of them on the record – Tom on lead vocals and guitar and Andy on lead guitar and harmony vocals – and they make these songs, no matter how familiar they may be, sound fresh.

Tom Russell, Mike Regenstreif & Andrew Hardin (2005)
Highlights? How about every song? Of course there’s “Gallo Del Cielo,” Tom’s epic border ballad about a fighting rooster (the song is fictional – no real roosters were harmed in its creation); “Angel of Lyon,” co-written by Steve Young, the story of a businessman who finds salvation in Europe, a compelling song that was and remains a showcase for Andy’s virtuosity; the irresistible “Navajo Rug,” co-written with Ian Tyson; and the sad and beautiful story-song, “Blue Wing,” about an Indigenous ex-con who shared a prison cell with the real-life R&B singer and convicted killer Little Willie John (a line from “Blue Wing” gives the album its title); and, of course, 16 more.

Tom told me he thought he was singing these “old songs” better now than when they were new. With all due respect to all the great Tom Russell albums with the original versions, I’m not going to argue.

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--Mike Regenstreif