Tom Russell ‘Heart on a Sleeve’

tomrussellheart

Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#897 in the Series) is Tom Russell, Heart on a Sleeve

 Going back to Lukenbach with Waylon, Willie, and the boys, Texas has been ground zero for singer songwriters. With a couple of them you only need to mention their first names to experience the magic. With others, two first names may be necessary. Just ask Jerry Jeff, Billy Joe, or Jimmie Dale, and with Bob Wills you only need to hear a few notes to understand that he is still The King, but the true beauty of the Texas music scene is the regional diversity and eclectic musical differences you can experience depending on what part of the Lone Star State you happen to be travelling through.

With Willie Nelson lighting up the Austin Hill Country, Billy Joe Shaver writing brilliant songs and trying to stay out of jail in Waco, and The Red Neck Mother himself, Ray Wylie Hubbard taking the stage in Dallas, the highway 35 corridor from Austin to Dallas is pretty well covered, just ask Pat Green.

Lyle Lovett holds court in the Houston area, Tommy Alverson along with Bruce and Charlie Robison entertain the hunters in Bandera, and West Texas is supremely represented with Joe Ely and The Flatlanders out of Lubbock and Robert Earl Keene continues to send holiday wishes from the family every holiday season.

Yes, while it is true that many Texas artists have become woven into the fabric of their individual communities spread out all over the state, the absolute winner of the homeowner’s association award for service to his community is Tom Russell from El Paso, Texas.

No Texas artist is as embedded in their landscape as Russell is identified with El Paso and the Juarez border region. Universally admired for his honest Borderland-Noir songwriting style, his songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Dave Alvin, along with a host of other contemporary artists. Virtually every one of his albums in some way depicts the people, customs, heroes, and villains of the area with Road to Bayamon and Borderland as two shining examples.

And now, after twenty critically acclaimed but criminally ignored albums, the first Tom Russell record, Heart on a Sleeve has been remastered, and is available complete with bonus tracks. The first of several early work albums that have been given the makeover treatment in 2013, the album was originally distributed in limited release, and subsequent overseas import versions that have been available were either poorly mixed, too expensive, or both.

Originally released in 1984, before the term generally existed, the album was in some circles considered to be one of the first Americana albums. The musicianship is top-notch and the story telling is first rate, very much in the John Prine meets Woody Guthrie mold. The opener, “One on One”, is a verse trading he said, she said narrative. “He had his alibies, she had those wandering eyes, and soon it was through” tells the tale of two people that find themselves apart for the first time in their relationship with the female lead played to cheating vixen perfection by Shawn Colvin who lends her pipes to several songs on the record.

Several of Russell’s signature songs appeartomr here for the first time here including “Gallo Del Cielo,” the depiction of the epic confrontation between fighting roosters Gallo Del Cielo and Zorro that could have come right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and “St. Olav’s Gate” where Tom finds himself “drinking black market vodka in the back of the Scotsman’s saloon, then it’s red meat and whiskey like a coyote drunk on the moon,” both songs, a perfect introduction to the other side of the El Paso tracks world of Tom Russell.

Stylistically, the songs are more individual portrait paintings than some of his more conceptual later works that include Man from God Knows Where, a song cycle about America’s pioneers, and Hotwalker that was inspired by Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski.

Musically, the flavor is a combination of Folk, Tex-Mex, and Hill Country Ballad, with a mariachi sprinkling where needed that never over powers. There is even a little bit of Gospel and some Jerry Lee Lewis Boogie Woogie on a couple of the songs. Russell’s voice is strong and assured, and like good whiskey and a cigar, pairs perfectly with duet partner Shawn Colvin. The guitar picking is first rate, and this remastered version has eliminated the production flaws that were inherent with the original release.

The absolute strength here of course is the songwriting. Whether the subject matter is a bowl of chili where as everybody knows:

You don’t put beans in chili/you never water good whiskey down/and you never play poker with a man named doc on the Spanish side of town/but if you want to go sleeping with the doctors daughter/ you gotta pay the old man his bread/ it’s a short short ride from hell to heaven ridin’ on a bowl of red.”

Or like on “Crop duster” where he is flying too close to the ground:

I love to see those Puerto Rican ladies/standing in the carrot fields at dawn/with their short handled hose and their legs so brown and slender/singing out the verses to a Puerto Rican song/but I’m flying too close to the ground again/ looks like I’m gonna let it down again/in a field of grapes/let ‘em harvest my blood off the vine/turn it into some exotic wine/cabernet sauvignon crop duster 49/crop duster

Every word on this record is carefully placed where it should be, much like a jigsaw puzzle. As a songwriter Tom Russell can stand quill to quill with the like of Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen, he is a better singer than either of them. As an artist, he is a bit more fun than Townes Van Zandt. As a spoken for the common man, he is a bit more edgy than Woody Guthrie. A careful listen to more of his extensive library would compare him favorably to Johnny Cash on the social activist front, and ultimately, he is an artist that is extremely underrated.

If you listen to one reissued album this year, Heart on Sleeve from Tom Russell should be the one.

— Jeremy Wren, San Francisco CaliforniaPlease-visit-and-LIKE-our-facebook-page

Track Listing

  1. One And One 4:12
  2. Heart On A Sleeve 3:40
  3. Blinded By The Light Of Love 2:45
  4. A Touch Of Grey 3:24
  5. Wild Hearts 2:30
  6. St. Olav’s Gate 3:30
  7. Gallo De Cielo 6:40
  8. Mandarin Oranges 2:50
  9. Cropduster 2:35
  10. Canadian Whiskey 2:54
  11. Chinese Silver 2:50
  12. A Bowl Of Red 2:45
  13. The Dance 3:04

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