Not so lone­some cow­boy

Singer-song­writer (and artist) Tom Rus­sell takes the stage of the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema with Thad Beck­man

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A warm evening in late June found singer-song­writer Tom Rus­sell at The Green Frog, a down­town Belling­ham, Washington, wa­ter­ing hole and per­for­mance space. Rus­sell, near the end of a long tour, was there to show­case his am­bi­tious new two-CD record­ing, The Rose of Rose­crae, a folk opera that ties themes of cow­boy life, Ir­ish immigration, and the frus­tra­tions of love into its lively two-hour-and-twenty-minute length. The record­ing boasts a large cast in­clud­ing a wind ensem­ble from Nor­way, a yodel choir, and a host of guests, some of them — Johnny Cash and Hud­die Led­bet­ter among them — singing from be­yond the grave, thanks to the magic of pre­vi­ously recorded ma­te­rial. But here in this venue, just south of the Cana­dian bor­der, it was only Rus­sell and Thad Beck­man, a gui­tarist-singer also heard on

The Rose of Rose­crae. (The two will per­form at the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema on Tues­day, July 14.) Rus­sell told the au­di­ence, some down from nearby Van­cou­ver, where the song­writer cut his mu­si­cal teeth play­ing honky-tonks and other dives, that The Rose of Rose­crae is his an­swer to Ok­la­homa, An­nie Get Your Gun, and other Broad­way pro­duc­tions with a Western slant. He first heard them as a kid and calls them “fron­tier mu­si­cals.” He told the au­di­ence that his opera is

“Les Misérables with cow­boy hats.” He and Beck­man picked their way into “Hair Trig­ger Heart,” a rous­ing an­them that opens with para­phrased lines cred­ited to Pan­cho Villa: “Cowboys we are, and cowboys we shall al­ways be.” Rus­sell sings in the voice of the mu­si­cal’s lead char­ac­ter, Johnny Dut­ton, also known as Johnny Be­hind-the-Deuce, a “range bum” who at his trial tells the judge that he “never killed no one who didn’t need killin’!”

In Rus­sell’s mu­sic, the old and new West col­lide. The ro­man­tic myths and hard­scrab­ble re­al­i­ties of the lifestyle meld into larger state­ments of class and the hu­man con­di­tion. Rus­sell’s world is a place where cowboys still rus­tle cat­tle. But they also kite checks. Be­tween sets and dur­ing a later email ex­change, Rus­sell talked about the mu­si­cal’s themes and how its nar­ra­tive evolved. “The story came to­gether once I wrote the ti­tle song: ‘The Rose of Rose­crae.’ That was the skele­ton I hung the plot on. The back­drops for the story are the voices Johnny hears as he trav­els across the West: Tex Rit­ter, Johnny Cash, Lead­belly, etc. He’s haunted by these voices, and it gives me the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the roots of our Amer­i­cana mu­sic and folk mu­sic on a deeper level.” Rus­sell has pre­vi­ously li­censed the record­ings of other singers, liv­ing and dead, per­form­ing his ma­te­rial. His 2007 High Tone la­bel record­ing Wounded Heart of Amer­ica fea­tures Cash singing Rus­sell’s “Vet­eran’s Day,” as well as other Rus­sell cov­ers from Joe Ely, Iris Dement, Jerry Jeff Walker, Dave Van Ronk, and Ram­blin’ Jack El­liott, among oth­ers. El­liott and Cash, as well as Jim­mie Dale Gil­more, El­iza Gilkyson, Guy Clark, Ian Tyson, and other fig­ures in the Western singer-song­writer tra­di­tion now called Amer­i­cana are heard on The Rose of Rose­crae. “I used some of my older songs, like ‘Gallo Del Cielo’ [sung by Joe Ely], so I could in­clude singers I wanted on the record. All these singers are voices I think peo­ple should hear.” The in­clu­sion doesn’t stop at who’s singing the mu­sic. “I wanted to cre­ate a fron­tier mu­si­cal which was com­ing from a more au­then­tic place, true voices and a back­drop of tra­di­tional mu­sic that set the scene, a painted mu­si­cal back­drop. We throw around this term Amer­i­cana, but what does it mean? They said Aaron Co­p­land cre­ated Amer­i­cana with his bal­lets like Billy

the Kid, and in a way I’m fol­low­ing that tra­di­tion. But I wanted to ex­tend our un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­cana by ref­er­enc­ing Mex­i­can mu­sic, French Cana­dian mu­sic, Swiss, Ger­man, blues, folk, rock.”

Rus­sell has a broad back­ground in so­ci­ol­ogy, literature, jour­nal­ism, and the vis­ual arts. His in­ter­ests, even in these sub­jects, are more low-life than high­brow. Born and raised in Los An­ge­les, he grad­u­ated from col­lege with a de­gree in crim­i­nol­ogy and spent a year teach­ing in Nige­ria. His Van­cou­ver ex­pe­ri­ences were fol­lowed by mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions with singer-song­writer Pa­tri­cia Hardin, with whom he recorded Ring of Bone and Wax

Mu­seum dur­ing the 1970s. He gave up mu­sic af­ter the two split. But, while driv­ing a taxi in New York City in the late ’70s, he picked up Robert Hunter of the Grate­ful Dead and was drawn back in. He shared his song “Gallo Del Cielo” with Hunter, who en­cour­aged Rus­sell to pur­sue his craft and later in­cluded the song­writer in some of his per­for­mances. Rus­sell’s rep­u­ta­tion grew grad­u­ally as he re­leased a slew of small-la­bel record­ings and more and more artists cov­ered his songs. His first folk opera, The Man From God Knows Where, springs from the im­mi­grant sto­ries of his own an­ces­tors. The sec­ond, Hot­walker, is nar­rated by an am­phetaminedriven dwarf named Lit­tle Jack Hor­ton. “Hot­walker is a bal­lad for gone Amer­ica,” Rus­sell said, quot­ing a line from the CD’s cover. “It’s a mostly spo­ken-word piece about the writ­ers I grew up read­ing — the Beats, [Charles] Bukowski, Ed Abbey — and the folk and coun­try mu­sic I lis­tened to. It re­ally takes a shot at our so-called mod­ern cul­ture, mak­ing the point that writ­ing and song­writ­ing have gone to hell. Let’s face it, most of the great nov­els of the last 100 years were writ­ten be­fore 1970. Most of the great songs as well. Art does not flow in an evolv­ing line.”

Book learn­ing, as a cow­boy might call it, plays a big part in Rus­sell’s song­writ­ing. In The Rose of Rose­crae’s li­bretto — avail­able in an 82-page pro­gram guide pub­lished by Fron­tera Press — he quotes Lorca in the in­tro­duc­tion to “Tu­larosa,” a lonely West Texas bal­lad that drops James Joyce’s name and con­tains the lines, “You’ve read all the great works of literature/But you don’t know a damn thing about love, my lit­tle friend.” Rus­sell writes regularly for the bou­tique Western mag­a­zine Ranch & Reata. “I’m a lit­tle bit of a his­to­rian on odd an­gles of Western history,” he ex­plained. His piece on Western nov­el­ist J.P.S. Brown, a fifth­gen­er­a­tion cat­tle­man and writer whom Rus­sell sought out in a lonely cor­ner of Ari­zona, is about a guy who wran­gled horses on movie sets and knew Slim Pick­ens, but also dab­bled in bull­fight­ing, whiskey smug­gling, and mar­riage five times. In a piece on song­writer Ian Tyson, who was known early on as half of the folk duo

Ian & Sylvia, Rus­sell, who knew Tyson when both were scram­bling for work around Van­cou­ver, ex­plains Tyson’s bro­ken-spirit song­writ­ing by quot­ing beat nov­el­ist Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs. Read­ing these ar­ti­cles, lyrics, and other writ­ings, you re­al­ize that Rus­sell isn’t just all about cowboys. He’s about lone­li­ness and hu­man sep­a­ra­tion and a hard-lived life, all of which are per­fectly sym­bol­ized by the men who ride the range.

Rus­sell said his in­ter­est in all things cow­boy is fa­mil­ial. “I grew up in a fam­ily with deep horse-trad­ing tra­di­tions which go back to Iowa and Ire­land. My fa­ther had race horses and my brother recre­ated him­self as a rodeo cow­boy in the 1950s. He’s a semi-fa­mous stock con­trac­tor to­day, and he had an ex­ten­sive cow­boy record col­lec­tion back in the ’50s and ’60s: Tex Rit­ter, Marty Rob­bins. His sec­ond wife came from eight gen­er­a­tions of ranch­ers, Cal­i­for­nia to Texas. All I had to do was lis­ten to my brother and sis­ter-in-law talk about the West — the real West — and I picked up a lot of lingo and history. The real deal.”

In ad­di­tion to his writ­ing and per­form­ing, Rus­sell paints. His work, on dis­play at Santa Fe’s Rain­bow Man Gallery and var­i­ous of his record­ing cov­ers, is styl­ized and bril­liantly col­ored, of­ten in the form of re­spect­ful por­traits or quasi-spir­i­tual sym­bol­ism. He sees his vis­ual work mak­ing a change now that he’s moved from his long­time home in El Paso to Santa Fe. “A new fresh win­dow will open. There’s such a rich tra­di­tion of art and bo­hemi­an­ism in Santa Fe. The trick [in paint­ing] is to keep your in­di­vid­u­al­ity and not suc­cumb to some greet­ing-card world where you spend your days ex­plain­ing your art and why you do it.” In­di­vid­u­al­ity, sym­bol­ized by the cow­boy, is im­por­tant to Rus­sell’s work. “I think art and song em­anate from rad­i­cal in­di­vid­u­al­ism. And some sort of unique char­ac­ter forged over a life­time.” Or, as Johnny Be­hind-the-Deuce sings near the end of The Rose of Rose­crae’s first act, “I’m Johnny Be­hind-theDeuce/What is real and what is truth?/Trou­ble be­hind me, trou­ble up ahead/Pass the rum and turn the wild dogs loose.”

Bill Kohlhaase For The New Mex­i­can

City Bar,

2014, acrylic

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