Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Tom Russell, is one of the last great singer-songwriters of our time. If you want honesty, blood and tears, and heart and soul, laid out on the line in every song..then you've found your man. Tom is passionate & insightful beyond his years. He is one of my heroes and I am thrilled to share this Q & A with you.
I can't tell you what an honor it is to do this interview. Tom, I appreciate your time & willingness to participate. I know your time is precious so I will get right to it. The questions are as follows:
1) I've heard that your putting that Criminology degree to work by writing your first mystery novel. How is the book coming along, the title, setting, and how long before we might see in bookstores?
Well, book writing isn’t my main job, songwriting is, so who knows when this will see the light of day? We live just across the river from the most dangerous city in the world, Juarez, Mexico, and that’s what I’m writing about. Sort of a Narco-Corriddo song with 20,000 verses.
2) So many of your songs have religous/spiritual references in them, what are your personal beliefs?
I’m a fallen away Catholic altar boy trying to dig deeper. I’m not interested in religion. To me Religions are like the Kiwannis Club or the Boy Scouts. Lots of Rules and a place where a community of people can hang out and hope there’s something better in the afterlife. I’m an isolate loner. I’m more interested in passion and belief on a spiritual plain which defies religion and travels beyond it and speaks of mystery and freedom and poetry. Like the Gnostic Gospels. I saw mystery in the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City. I only hit on it in shattered glimpses in some songs.
3)You spend an incredible amount of time touring, do you ever get tired of the road?
People who don’t like hotels ask that question a lot.
I thrive on the road. I love the stage and all that the stage implies. It’s Shakespearean and ancient. It’s the minstrel trade and one of the few honest jobs left – if you have something to say. The road makes sense. When you get home you have to deal with cesspools and leaking ceilings and mail. On the road I feel like a boxer or a bullfighter going from city to city throwing the jab, swinging the cape and trying to create magic.
4) I've seen some of your art, and it's really incredible work, when do you find time to paint and how did you learn to paint like that?
I never learned. It’s primitive stuff. I just went in one day and drew a cow and then painted it blue and I was off to the moon. I felt Picasso was in the room for a few seconds. There’s no pressure on my art because I’m not trying to contend in any current market. I have galleries in Santa Fe (Rainbo Man) and Austin (Yard Dog) which seem to move the paintings out the door. It’s a blessing. I paint at night. We don’t have a TV. And the nearest bar is in Juarez, and that’s off limits now. When you’re painting, as Picasso said, you leave your mind outside the studio like Arabs take off their shoes before they enter the temple.
5) Have you gotten a chance to see "Crazy Heart" & if so, how realistic is Jeff Bridges "Bad Blake" as a veteran musician's life on the road?
Have not seen it. I might, but I usually find movies about musicians lacking or pimping to a Hollywood mentality. I don’t think actors can play musicians…
Most of these people want to be songwriters but need to be actors to pay their enormous Karmic rent.
6) I found "Hotwalker" to be just amazing..it really captured the spirit of a vanishing America and icons like Edward Abbey, Charles Bukowski, Dave Van Ronk...real Americans. Are there any voices still out there today, crying from the pulpit & dying to be heard?
Precious few. There aren’t many young writers of merit. But we still have songwriters like Steve Young and Jesse Winchester and Leonard Cohen who can knock you down with a song. I like the new Jenny Shienman album with vocals. It’s simple but hits me. I love what Ken Bruen does in his novels…
7) As a country we've come so far so fast that its hard to even keep up on a daily basis. Some call it progress....what do you call it and where do you see this country headed? Can we even slow the tide?
I’m not an historian or economist or political scientist, thank God. I’m a believer in art, and not politics and history. I think a Van Gogh or a Bob Dylan can arrive any moment and shatter history forever and create something that resonates for centuries.
A great song might be our only hope.
8) It's obvious your a real champion of the people, from your music...you treat people with such dignity that it has to break your heart to see the working class people being exploited & big buisness getting greedier & greedier. Will we ever see a world where those without means arent a pawn for those who do?
Hell no. There’s not going to be any Utopian Dream come true. I don’t think in terms of a class struggle.
I think in terms of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Willem de Kooning. My songs are about myself or about individuals. Not classes or groups.Topical songs have a shelf life.
That realization is what killed Phil Ochs.
9) You can capture an individuals life in a three or four minute song better than anyone. Where does the inspiration come from to write tribute songs such as "THE KID FROM SPAVINAW" ,MUHAMMAD ALI, RACEHORSE HAYNES, ISAAC LEWIS ?
Those songs were easy because they were about real people. People with real lives and people of huge character. I grew up watching Muhammed Ali and Mickey Mantle and listening to Bob Dylan. Giants walked the earth. Every chapter of their life; every fight and game and concert was grist for a novel or song.
10) How on earth do you come up with such soulful songs such as Ash Wednesday or Guadaloupe?
Trying to escape my Catholic past, shed that layer of skin and ask myself what love or faith or passion is really about.
And it ain’t on CNN or the six o’clock news or the weather channel.
11) Stealing Electricity and Who's Gonna Build The Walls, are just brilliant. How long did it take you to write those 2 songs.
Probably thirty minutes a piece. Those two came quickly because they were driven by a need to say something fast
about the people I love. Mexicans.
12) Your most memorable or meaningful accomplishment in your career?
Arriving at a place where I could write the songs on “Blood and Candle Smoke,” realizing it was a new plateau, but that there is a higher ground and much work to do.
Final Question: What are some of your favorite venues & what would you like people to remember about Tom Russell 50 yrs. from now?
I love em all. Especially Belfast, Reno,Oslo, London,New York, Chicago…anywhere a few hundred people assemble and want to hear songs. I like to see the audience and I like to pull them in with gypsy moves and good writing…the old craft.
I trust some of the songs will be alive in fifty or a hundred years and that’s enough. But I plan to be around long enough to piss on Methusaleh’s grave.
I have a young and beautiful wife who keeps me in good health…like a great boxing trainer. Adios and thank you. TR El Paso
Posted by Rod Norman at 4:15 PM