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Interview: Tom Russell talks new album, UK tour and future plans

We chatted to the legendary country musician as he releases his new album, October In The Railroad Earth.

Tom Russell
Credit: Tom Russell

It’s safe to say Tom Russell is one of the most prolific artists in country music today.

Over the course of his career, he’s released a whopping 35 albums – most recently 2017’s Folk Hotel and Play One More: The Songs Of Ian And Sylvia – and published six books. His songs have also been recorded by hundreds of other artists, including Johnny Cash, k.d. lang, Nanci Griffith and Iris Dement. His new album, October In The Railroad Earth, is due for release on 15th March and features 10 original songs, including Small Engine Repair which was performed by Iain Glen (AKA Game of Thrones’ Jorah Mormont) in the film of the same name.

Ahead of the album’s release, I spoke to Tom about the new record, what to expect from his upcoming UK tour and the secrets behind his longevity in the music business. Find out more below…

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You’ve had an incredibly diverse career – how have you made your decisions about what to pursue?

Here’s the answer. We threw away our TV, number one, and then we don’t get any newspapers, we don’t get any dreadful news every day. My wife manages me, so she’s doing the business, and really I can spend a good deal of the day painting and writing, whether I’m working on a book or paintings. And really my first priority is always songwriting. I like to do a record every two years, and we tour the UK every two or three years, but I like to have new songs. And I’m very happy and proud of the new record. So we don’t have a lot keeping us away from making art.

How much of your writing and art feeds into your music? And does the music inspire or feed into those in turn?

People ask me sometimes. I think there’s a strong link between painting and writing songs. They’re both dances, in a way, where you try to create a story or something that’s happened to you or something about love. And then at a certain point it either works or doesn’t work. Or the muse, that mystical point, takes over and suddenly it’s finished and it works. The same way with a painting. After dinner last night I was pretty groggy, but I did one of the best portraits of a friend I’d ever done. I don’t know how I did it. I just was in the zone. So a lot of it’s magic. So painting and songwriting go together.

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Writing, working on books, I’m going to work on a book of my art, a new book. There’s an older one out called Blue Horse Red Desert. But writing is different. It’s more like a job. You have to do an hour or two hours a day to keep up with trying to get a book done. There’s a book of my essays out too. But that’s more like a regular job. It doesn’t happen to involve as much magic, although you let it flow and then you edit it later. So they’re similar and they’re different.

Can you tell us a bit more about your new album?

Yeah, October In The Railroad Earth is the title track. It’s taken from a prose piece by Jack Kerouac, the famous Beat writer. He was writing about when he worked as a railroad switchman back in the 50s, and a really poetic piece. It’s on a couple of records he did with Steve Allen, kind of jazz poetry records. That’s the tone of this album. It’s got Bill Kerchin on guitar, there’s a pedal steel guitar, great drummer who used to play with Joe Cocker, real strong drummer. I recorded it in Austin where we moved a few months ago, and it’s got a real Texas sound.

I describe the tone of the record as Johnny Cash meets Jack Kerouac in Bakersfield, in 1958. I grew up in LA so I lived somewhat near Bakersfield, and that music affected me. I turned on the radio late one night in 1962 and I heard Bob Dylan for the first time on one station, and I switched the channel and heard Buck Owens. I thought it was all the same. I didn’t think of categories back then. I thought, ‘wow, these guys sound like wild hillbillies and they’re honest and poetic’. So I’m kind of aiming at that on this record. My last record, Folk Hotel, looked strongly at acoustic and folk music that I’ve heard from the Greenwich Village in the 60s. I missed it. I didn’t get there till the 80s. But this one has more of a country feel on five or six of the songs, a Bakersfield feel.

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There’s several references to the UK, because we love touring the UK. I love playing the 100 Club in London, which we shall do pretty soon. But there’s a song, That’s When The Road Gets Rough. My wife came up with the title. It’s about touring in the UK. You’re really getting paid for the long nights of driving, staying in hotels, bad food – it’s a musician on the road kind of poem.

And then Isadore Gonzalez is a Tex-Mex cuarido, which means a story song. Texmaniacs are backing me up – that’s two guys, I think it’s a nephew and his uncle, from San Antonio. One guy plays bajo sext, the other guy plays accordion. The song takes place in the UK. It’s about a true story of a Mexican vaquero, a cowboy who rode in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the 1880s and died in Bristol, England when his horse rolled on him. He was buried in an unmarked grave, so he became kind of a legend or a ghost, and a fan of mine about six months ago has actually located the grave in Bristol, which I thought was cool. So anyway, that’s the song about Isadore Gonzalez.

And then there’s a brief reference to the English poet Robert Graves in one of the songs, Red Oak Texas. It’s about two American Army guys, another true story, who never came back from war in the Middle East. They kind of mentally got messed up. And one of them reads Robert Graves’s World War One poetry. So those are some UK references on this record.

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Quite a few of the songs on this album are based on true stories. How do you going about finding the stories and deciding which ones to turn into songs?

I think with some of them, what happens is I can’t get them out of my head. I’m moved by something. The Isadore Gonzalez, I found out about him in the book of essays I wrote which is called Ceremonies of the Horseman. I think it’s available on Amazon. It’s a bunch of non-fiction stories about the West that were published in various magazines. But that story affected me, I guess, and I couldn’t get him out of my head – this guy that comes from Monterey, Mexico, and rides across Europe and then dies and is in an unmarked grave so far from his home. I guess it just started clawing at me so I wrote the song. It was demanding to be written.

The Red Oak Texas one about the Army heroes – I actually picked up a newspaper, which I don’t usually do, because it was sitting in an airport. And the Wall Street Journal told this horrible story about two kids, they were juvenile delinquents in high school but they got straightened out in the army but saved a lot of lives wherever they were – Iran or somewhere. They came back and they never adapted. And they were twins. That’s the ones that read Robert Graves. They both ended up committing suicide, very, very sad. I don’t get into that detail too much. But again that story kept clawing at me.

I’m not a political person in any way [laughs]. I wrote a song called Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall years ago and now of course it’s getting played a lot. The BBC did a film on the wall recently that had me in it and Lyle Lovett and a black comedian who’s based over there in your country. Anyway, they used the Wall song, I sang it with them. But I usually stay away from divisive politics. But something about that war veteran’s human part of the story moved me.

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The other day we played in southern Utah, in the Zion National Park. To play these concerts I had to do community outreach shows in the afternoon. I played for little kids and then the next day I had to play for veterans, and oh my God. To play for about seven rows of people in wheelchairs – men and women from World War II – it was quite moving. But that gets into your heart and you write about it.

I wanted to ask you about Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall. Are you surprised at how that song’s gone viral in the last couple of years?

No, that happens with songs. When I wrote it I was living in El Paso and it was written about a guy in San Diego, a developer who built a wall along the border near his house using the illegal Mexican labourers to keep the illegals out. So it was kind of funny. And I performed on the David Letterman TV show about eight years ago, and of course it was controversial back then even. They didn’t want me to do it, and I said, “Well, ask David.” By that time David was kind of a friend, so I said, “Ask David,” and David said, “Let him do it.” There was a lot of hate mail, probably from conservatives and stuff.

Songs, once they’re written, they go out and have their own life. So I’m not surprised. My wife’s favourite English word is ‘royalties’, you get that? So it’s going on and it’s been on several records. Hundreds of people have cut it. I don’t like it when they change the words to suit their needs, but there’s not much I can do about that. But it’s on its own and I appreciate the BBC for being supportive of what I’ve done, so it’s nice of them to put me and that song on the board.

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The other song I wanted to ask about was Small Engine Repair, which I read you’d written a while ago but hadn’t yet recorded. Why did you feel this was the right time to record your version of it?

Well, I own a record company here in the States run by one guy in Kansas City, Frontera Records. And then Proper has the rest of the world, God bless ’em. A good friend of mine owns Proper, Malcolm. But my record company guy here loved the song. I did a demo of it, a live version at a radio station, and he always said, “Why don’t you do it?” Well, somehow an Irish filmmaker 10 or 12 years ago heard it and wrote a screenplay based on it, about a guy who fixes lawnmowers or something in Ireland. So an elite actor – and you can see this on YouTube – Iain Glen, who’s Scottish, sings the song for about a minute in the movie. I thought that was great. But I had never recorded it, although they paid me.

So I found out later, somebody came up to me a year or so ago and said, “you know, Iain Glen, he’s a star now, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey” and I thought, ‘wow, I wasn’t aware of that’. We even played a theatre in Sante Fe that the guy who writes Game of Thrones, George [R. R.] Martin is his name, owns. And he was at my show. So I had no idea. I don’t watch that much TV. But people kept saying, “you should record that song” and thematically it fit this record finally. Because this is kind of, in a way, it’s kind of a hardcore working class sound on some of the songs. And it fit the record, and I thought, ‘well, people are gonna be surprised at that old connection with Iain Glen’.

This is your 35th record – how have you kept things fresh and interesting for yourself over that time?

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That’s a good question. It always surprises me that it’s been that many. But I guess there’s several things. I never consider retirement. I think it’s a dirty word, especially in the States because that’s when they come after you [laughs] – the lawyers and the insurance people. But I love the road, and it keeps you fresh. My wife, who’s a yoga teacher and a psychologist and a health enthusiast, keeps me in pretty good shape to survive. That’s one of the secrets.

The road is a great equaliser. It destroys a lot of musicians. The song That’s When The Road Gets Rough kind of speaks to that. You gotta survive. You gotta eat good food on occasion and get some exercise, meditate or be mindful, blah blah blah, but you gotta survive. You can’t stay up all night drinking like we used to do [laughs]. You know, that kills people like Townes Van Zandt. So that’s one of the secrets.

And the other secret is I don’t really play the game, never did. I don’t consider myself part of a scene. I never liked hanging out in Nashville and I don’t hang out in Austin much – we’re on the edge of town. I don’t go to conferences any more, this and that. I might be nominated for a Grammy but I never show up and play the game. People might think that hurts you, but it sure keeps me plugged in to my own spirit and my own writing soul. I think that’s one of the secrets too. And just keeping it fresh. I’m very interested in art and songwriting and the whole history of it, and I’m just gonna keep plugging away.

How would you say your songwriting has evolved over your career?

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You know, overall I think I’m more capable of writing a full album of good songs than I was. But I have to say, a lot of my most well known songs, like Blue Wing and Gallo del Cielo, were written in the late 70s. Gallo del Cielo’s probably the most famous song I’ve written besides [Who’s Gonna Build Your] Wall, and it’s been recorded by Joe Ely and dozens and dozens of people. I wrote it in ’78. It just happened I was thinking of this story.

So songs are magic. They can happen at any time. But I think I’m more capable. I’m a better editor now. I’m not just throwing everything on a record. If I have to I’ll put a cover on, I’ll do a Dylan song. This album has a cover of Johnny Cash’s version of The Wreck Of The Old ’97 which is the first Johnny Cash song I ever heard when I was a kid and I put it on there. It fits the record. I worked with Johnny several times, so the record’s dedicated to him and Jack Kerouac.

I think it’s evolved in one way and in another way it doesn’t. I mean, I love Dylan’s catalogue but he never really topped Highway 61, Blonde On Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home – that era in the late 60s. Those records were all recorded within 18 months, so there’s some kind of godlike magic, y’know? So it can be both. You can move forward but you can hit the ball out of the park any time.

You’re coming over to tour the UK this spring. What can people expect from your live shows?

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Utter chaos! I think the live shows are getting better and better. I’m doing solo and playing more guitar and more rapport with the audience this way. But they’ll get to hear a lot of the new songs off of October In The Railroad Earth. I do at least five or six of them. I do songs off the last record, Folk Hotel. I’ll do a lot of requests – if people are yelling them out, I do some of those. I think they’ll get a fresh show. I don’t overdo the UK like some people do – only every two or three years, so that the show has to be new.

Is there anything that surprises you about UK audiences? Do they react to different songs?

Yeah, I did an interview a little while ago and the guy was asking me about music journalism, because I won an award for a story I did on Johnny Cash several years ago, an ASCAP Award. But he was asking me ‘is there a difference? What do you think of journalism?’ And my point to him was, and Americans don’t know this, the English audience especially is far more literate than an American audience. Music journalism has kind of died in the States, but I read Mojo, I read Uncut, Classic Rock. There are a dozen really well-written magazines that come out of the UK and they go all over the world. And when my reviews come in from the English press they’re always very well-written and well-thought out. Not so much of that’s happening in the States.

Are the audiences different? I think, not really, totally, but I’m getting a younger audience in the UK which I like. I still have my older audience, but I like the 100 Club because they’re standing right in front of me. I like to be close to the audience. I’m not really big on theatres. Sometimes they put me in a theatre, but then you’re removed from the audience so you work twice as hard to make that bond. I’m starting to see young kids in my audience, in their 20s, and in the back trying to find a seat you see people in their 60s or something. That’s cool.

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But I think it’s a hipper audience in general in Europe. I mean, we do very well in the States – I play New York and I play LA and I play all the big folk clubs. My wife’s originally from Switzerland and we also have a place in Switzerland, so I have a base in Europe to work out of. In general I think audiences are the same but a little bit hipper in places like England and, believe it or not, Norway. Very hip in Norway. They speak English very well and there’s no secret. I used to live in Norway two months of the year back in the 80s – I had a band, long story. But yeah, a lot of the top crime novelists now and writers of that genre and writers in general come of Scandinavia – Sweden and Norway. They’re very literate people.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Oh, my God! You know, I could say the one song that changed my life was Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, but nobody could write that except him. I was listening to Leonard Cohen and Jennifer Warnes the other day. They have a beautiful song called Song of Bernadette. That’s a beautiful song. I did write a song called Guadalupe that’s similar, but Song of Bernadette has a line in it that says, ‘we move around, we fall, we fly, we mostly fall but we mostly rise’. That’s a song about feeling good about keeping on keeping on – keep going. So stuff like that. Leonard Cohen’s big songs and a few of Dylan’s. But it changes every day.

What does the rest of 2019 look like for you?

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Yeah, the record October In The Railroad Earth officially comes out – along with an LP, and this is the first LP I’ve put out in years, because people, especially once again, Norwegians, because they don’t even buy CDs, they want LPs. Proper is putting out an LP of the record, official release in one month from today. The focus of 2019 is touring. We start the tour in Zurich in a couple of weeks and then the UK. Then we come back here to start touring the US. My wife has all this figured out. We do some shows around Texas and Oklahoma and the Midwest, then back to Europe for the summer. We take the summer off because it’s so hot in Texas. And then in the fall we start touring over here again. So it’s mostly a touring and painting year. The painting is going very well, and I have a gallery in Santa Fe called Rainbow Man and a gallery here in Austin, Yard Dog. We’ll have some in England on tour with us. But I’ll probably be painting most of the summer and working on a couple of books.

You’re coming over to Bristol on your UK tour. Will you try to go and see Gonzalez’ grave while you’re there?

I would like to if this guy gets in touch with me. I think he lives in Bristol. I forget his name. He’s a historian that found the grave and also reminded me that I should do a song. The reason he went to find the grave was because of my story on Buffalo Bill in my book of essays, Ceremonies of the Horseman. So he did a year of research and find the grave. So I think we’re gonna go try to see where it is.

Tom Russell’s new album, October In The Railroad Earth, is out on 15th March.

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See Tom live on his UK tour this spring:

Wednesday 27 March – Cardiff, Norwegian Church Arts Centre
Thursday 28 March – Bristol, Thekla
Friday 29 March – London, The 100 Club
Saturday 30 March – Farncombe, Farncombe Music Club
Tuesday 2 April  – Brighton, Komedia
Wednesday 3 April – Nottingham, The Glee Club
Thursday 4 April – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
Friday 5 April – Sheffield, The Hubs
Saturday 6 April – Bury, The Met

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