AUSTIN, Texas Although Tom Russell's songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Suzy Bogguss, Jerry Jeff Walker, Nanci Griffith and Ian Tyson, when Russell opened his own set at the standing-room-only Cactus Café on Saturday night, he did so with a cover song.
To set the stage for an exploration of the songwriting craft, Russell said, he chose Leonard Cohen's eerie take on the nature of the gift, "Tower of Song." Russell and guitarist Andrew Hardin followed with "Angel of Lyon" (RealAudio excerpt), a haunting tale of missed meetings framed in vivid images of darkened alleys and candle-lit churches.
Hardin's guitar work was so moving that the audience broke into spontaneous applause in the middle of the song and Russell came to a full stop to acknowledge his cohort's prowess.
Displaying the wry humor he'd show throughout the evening, Russell then introduced the title track from his latest project, The Man From God Knows Where (RealAudio excerpt), by describing an encounter in an Irish pub in the town of Downpatrick.
After the exchange of many pints of Guinness, it developed that there had been an ancestor, also named Thomas Russell, who was hanged in that town several centuries before. A poem was written about him, called "The Man From God Knows Where."
Digging Up The Past
Russell decided to steal the title "and have this man from God knows where travel around digging up my ancestors, metaphorically speaking, and having them tell what it was really like for them in their lives not the part that makes it into history books, but their real lives."
"There are 26 pieces of music on the record, but tonight we'll give you the Tom and Andy Reader's Digest version," he said to laughter from the crowd.
Describing how a photograph of the American Indian chief had led to the idea for the song, the denim-clad Russell launched into the surreal and ironic portrait "Sitting Bull in Venice."
He took a gentler turn (introduced with a bittersweet and funny story) with a song inspired by his father's financial misfortunes, "Throwing Horseshoes at the Moon."
A full-voiced folk-rocker, "Out in California," had the Cactus crowd clapping and stamping along to the tale of a man remembering a former lover while drinking in the "last bar on Earth." Russell co-wrote that song with Dave Alvin, as he did his next selection, "Down on the Rio Grande," a quieter, more enigmatic relationship tale inspired, as Russell told it, by a less-than-romantic experience with irrigation schedules along the Rio Grande at his home in El Paso, Texas.
Russell, who has won awards for Bogguss' top 10 country version of "Outbound Plane" and co-writer Tyson's singing of "Navajo Rug," has also worked as a producer on a dozen critically acclaimed records, including the #1 charted Americana record in 1995: Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone).
He has another hit in his song-bag, too, and it's one that always brings an audience to its feet, as it did this night. Russell and Hardin pulled out all the stops on an impassioned rendition of the border-crossing, cockfighting, star-crossed lover portrayed in "Gallo del Cielo" that drew their first hour-long set to a close.
Russell opened the second with a song Griffith has made well-known, "St. Olav's Gate" (RealAudio excerpt), and followed by previewing several border-flavored songs he's working on for his next recording, including a dark tale set in Juarez, Mexico, inspired by the movie "Touch of Evil," and an atmospheric song combining trains, romance and the far Southwest, called "The Sound of the Santa Fe at Midnight."
Flora May Holliday proved a lively and gracious opening act. Singing in a voice somewhat in the Patty Loveless/Kelly Willis style, she showed herself to be a confident singer and guitar player, and a writer to watch, as she offered tunes from her debut disc including the love song "Almost Home" and the kaleidoscopic views of the musician's life, "Fishin'," "Carolina Cowgirl" and "Silver Road."