Opinion

Tom Russell, one of America's greatest and most authentic voices

Great artist, great roadhouse

I might never have heard the name Tom Russell if a decade ago a Madison-based book publisher named Ben LeRoy hadn’t insisted I read a novel by Craig McDonald called “Head Games.”

LeRoy, a Madison native, was then running a small publishing house called Bleak House Books, specializing in crime fiction.

The house was small but accomplished. In 2008, Bleak House titles received three nominations for Edgar Awards—the Oscars of the mystery writing field.

Craig McDonald was one of the nominees, for “Head Games” as best first novel. An agent sent LeRoy the manuscript and he’d resisted reading it for nearly a year. When he finally picked it up, he figured he’d read two pages and write a rejection letter. Instead, two pages in, LeRoy knew he wanted to publish “Head Games.”

I highly recommend the book, which gets new life next month when it’s reissued as a graphic novel. And I remain forever grateful to McDonald, the author, for the novel’s dedication: “To Tom Russell, for providing the soundtrack.”

I read that and thought, “Who is Tom Russell?”

A decade on, though, I’ve not met Russell. But I now know him as one of America’s greatest artists: a singer, songwriter, essayist, painter and travelling troubadour; an authentic voice with a deep well of stories from a life at once roguish and rigorous in its devotion to the demands of the creative arts.

Russell is not short on accolades, but my favorite may be from the nonagenarian San Francisco poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who likens Russell to Johnny Cash, Jim Harrison and Charles Bukowski rolled into one.

After reading the dedication in “Head Games,” I bought some Russell CD—“Borderland,” “Love and Fear,” “Blood and Candle Smoke”—all from the 2000s and all superb.

Then in 2011 my wife and I went to see him perform live. Russell was playing a club called FitzGerald’s, outside Chicago in Berwyn. I’d never heard of it, either.

FitzGerald’s was a revelation, It’s a gritty roadhouse with a long bar and small table seating for maybe 300 people. There is nothing shiny in FitzGerald’s, no ferns and no food service, though you can carry-in. What it offers—along with proximity to the small stage—is a rare genuineness, with a 37-year history of live music and a long list of appreciative musicians in agreement with the great Dave Alvin, who calls FitzGerald’s “legendary.”

I remember standing in line outside for the Russell show in 2011—doors opening at 7 p.m. with an 8 p.m. show start. It was 6:45 and there were maybe eight people ahead of us in line.

Suddenly I heard Russell sing, “Have you ever seen Duluth,” the opening line of his song “Mesabi,” which is about Bob Dylan and Russell’s own Los Angeles boyhood.

“They must be playing the CD,” I said.

“That’s the soundcheck, you idiot,” somebody said. “That’s him.”

I’ve become a little more sophisticated—not much more, mind you. When we returned to FitzGerald’s earlier this month, it was our fourth time there to see Russell.

It was a little bittersweet, owing to recent news in the Chicago Tribune that Bill FitzGerald is trying to sell the nightclub. He’s tired and wants to spend more time at his place in Wisconsin on the Mississippi River.

Russell is touring to promote his just-released CD, “Folk Hotel,” a collection of songs partly inspired by the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1950 and ’60s.

As always with Russell, there are literary references throughout. The poet Dylan Thomas makes several appearances, and the album’s first song, “Up in the Old Hotel,” takes its title from a book by the distinguished New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell.

I’m afraid I haven’t quite captured what it is that makes Russell so extraordinary. It’s the breadth of his experience, and his ability to turn it into art. In 2016, Russell published a collection of essays, “Ceremonies of the Horsemen,” which in a sense might serve as a partial catalog of his enthusiasms. There are essays on Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, tequila, bullfighting, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, strong Western women, Georgia O’Keeffe and Fritz Scholder, Ernest Hemingway, Gram Parsons and many more.

Russell includes a story of how he almost quit the music business in the early 1980s. He was driving a cab in New York, and hating it. One night he picked up Robert Hunter, famed songwriter for the Grateful Dead. Russell wound up singing one of his compositions, “Gallo del Cielo,” a song about a fighting rooster that now counts Bob Dylan among its admirers, and Hunter was so impressed he asked Russell to sing it on stage with him a week later.

Russell was back in the business, and back on the road.

Thirty-five years later, there’s a song, “The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence,” on the new CD that includes this lyric: “You keep on travelin,’ ‘cause in this there’s no retirement.”

If I had the chance, I’d tell Russell this lyric reminds me of something another great artist, the late author Harry Crews, once said about the difficulty—and necessity—of writing literary fiction.

“You don’t choose this stuff,” Crews said. “This stuff chooses you.”

Mr. Crews did not say “stuff.”    

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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