Saturday, March 9, 2019

Tom Russell – October in the Railroad Earth

October in the Railroad Earth

On Hotwalker, an album released in 2005, Tom Russell mixed original songs, poetry, stories and rants with the recorded voices of Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, Dave Van Ronk and others into a brilliantly conceived and executed audio collage that delved into lost or dimly remembered aspects of American culture – what Greil Marcus, writing about Bob Dylan, referred to as the “old weird America.”

Much of Tom’s work since then, including October in the Railroad Earth, yet another great album from the songwriter I consider to be the finest of my generation – the generation that came after groundbreakers like Dylan and Tom Paxton – has continued to be inspired by that faded American culture. Tom refers to this album as “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield” – a good description.

The album opens with the title track, a tribute to Kerouac, that takes its title from one of the beat writer’s prose poems – a short excerpt of it was included on Hotwalker – on which Tom references Kerouac’s days as a railroad brakeman in San Francisco and ultimately as the creator of one of the most important bodies of work in 20th century literature. The Bakersfield-style arrangement features Bill Kirchen on lead guitar and Marty Muse on pedal steel.

“Red Oak Texas” is one the most poignant songs I’ve heard in years. It tells a sad and true story of twin brothers from that small Texas town who went off to war in the Middle East and came home only to lose their battles with PTSD when they couldn’t leave the war behind.

“Isadore Gonzalez,” an infectious Tex-Mex corrido featuring Los Texmaniacs members Max Baca on bajo sexto and Josh Baca on accordion, tells the story – also true – of a Mexican cowboy who was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the late-1880s and who died when his horse fell on him during a show in England. Tom wrote the song from Gonzalez’s perspective singing from beyond the grave.

Other favorites include “T-Bone Steak and Spanish Wine,” a piece about Tom’s visit to a restaurant in Northern California where he’d gigged at back in 1981 and the nostalgic evening he spent there with the owner singing old songs and eating the same special – a T-bone steak with Spanish wine – that was on the menu almost four decades ago; “Hand-Raised Wolverines,” in which he recalls encountering “semi-tame” wolverines at a game park in Alberta; and “Back Streets of Love,” featuring Eliza Gilkyson’s harmony vocals, a beautiful love song with modern technological references.

Tom Russell & Mike Regenstreif (2018)
Along with 10 of his own songs – one co-written with his wife Nadine Russell – Tom ends the album with a great version of the traditional folk song, “Wreck of the Old 97,” that he says he learned as a kid from Johnny Cash’s first record. I remember Tom singing it in tribute to Cash at a gig in Montreal about a week after he died in 2003.

Virtually every album Tom has released over the past three decades has ended up at or near the top of my best-of list for the year. Less than three months into 2019, I suspect that will be the case for October in the Railroad Earth come December.

Watch the trailer for October in the Railroad Earth.

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Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. I was heartbroken when Tom cancelled his Lowestoft concert, I have the ticket on my noticeboard "just in case". This man can do no wrong, I love his music and his writing, it touches my heart.