Tom Russell: Cowboy Opera

Tom Russell’s latest Western opera is a storytelling masterpiece

Tom Russell calls his latest album “Les Misérables in cowboy hats.” Twenty years in the making, The Rose of Roscrae is a cowboy folk opera, a frontier musical, a 52-song double album, two-and-a-half hours of music that tells the story of a sheriff chasing Russell’s protagonist, the Irish-born outlaw Johnny Behind-the-Deuce across the West as he searches for his one true love.

The Rose of Roscrae features a slate of guests, musicians and singers who either voice characters in the story or perform standards and Western tunes, old campfire songs like “Home on the Range” become a sort of Greek chorus. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Johnny Cash, Augie Meyers, Gretchen Peters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott are joined by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble in Russell’s ambitious production. What Russell was searching for, he says, is a “cowboy truth” that doesn’t exist in the popular, romanticized version of the West.

“Back when I grew up in L.A., my brother had country records and my parents had a collection with a lot of Broadways musicals and these Westerns, Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, they were all written by East Coasters-Tin Pan Alley people or Rodgers and Hammerstein. I wanted to write a musical using more authentic dialogue, using traditional cowboy songs and real Western slang. In that sense, it may be the first hardcore frontier musical.”

Russell originally conceived of the project as a folk opera centered on a historic ranch in California, where his sister-in-law grew up and later remained working the land.

“She had all these stories that went back 100 years and I started taking notes on the real West through her eyes,” Russell says. “That was the beginning, but as I finally wrote the title song, I linked this fictional character who left Ireland in 1880.

“I didn’t have the title song until last year. I was going to call it Gunpowder Sunset or Johnny Behind-the-Deuce. When I came up with the title song, that took 180-degree turn to this story of an Irish kid and then I had a really strong plot. He comes to the USA, the kid becomes an outlaw, the sheriff chases him across the West into Mexico and then I had the skeleton I could make up additional stories to fit.”

Those stories tie together the lives of Johnny, his true love Rose, the corrupt Judge Squig, the vengeful and evangelistic Marshal Augie Blood, Johnny’s cousin Joseph Dutton and Father Damien. The music ties together the traditions that spread across the West and gave the land its lasting sound: Indian voices and chants, old cowboy songs, Mexican corridos, Swiss yodel choirs and Irish ballads. Johnny Behind-the-Deuce was chosen to be Irish specifically for that tradition.

“I wanted at the same time dig into the deeper roots of this thing they call Americana music, and that’s the landscape. It’s a story of the West and it does look back to Irish immigrants and their contribution to music. It is an exploration of American folk music and traditional songs and a lot of our melodies go back to Ireland,” Russell says.

The main plot, written from the perspective of Johnny looking back on his life as an old man, in the style of True Grit or Little Big Man. The bigger story moves across the West from 1880 to 1930, while Russell blends in songs like “The Water Is Wide” and “Sam Hall,” using the voices of other singers.

“Those are the voices you hear around the campfire, off in the distance, that form the color of the piece,” Russell says.

“The Rose of Roscrae” is also the third part of a trilogy Russell started about 25 years ago. He worked on “The Man From God Knows Where” over eight years, producing a 26-song folk opera about America’s early immigrants. “Hotwalker” was the second piece, a folk opera inspired by the Beats, part documentary, with recordings of Charles Bukowski and Lenny Bruce.

“This one is the biggest one and the third part of what I call my trilogy, although I may do more,” Russell says.

While Russell hopes to see The Rose of Roscrae turned into a stage production, he intends this tour to serve as more of an introduction to the story, playing the original songs that both serve the narrative and can stand on their own.

“I’m more comfortable with taking it out as a one-man show with a backup guitarist,” he says. “What I do is the first set I devote to The Rose of Roscrae and talk people through it and play the main songs and it’s different every night. I say that’s the rough guide and now you’re ready to listen the album, the whole two and half hours. In the second set I do other Tom Russell songs.”

Russell acknowledges the potential challenges in getting listeners for such a complex, lengthy musical work. But the execution is remarkable and easily rewarding for those willing to take the ride.

“We’re living in dead cultural landscape where people don’t put out big records that much. People aren’t used to the album approach any more, let alone double albums. But I grew up on that stuff, Sgt. Pepper’s and Tommy and Blonde on Blonde,” he says.

“When I do it live, people get it. I put a lot of dark humor in it and do the six or seven big songs. They get it then and then go back to the record. About half the fan base will trust me and half may be intimidated by that much music or not have the time,” Russell says.

Besides, he says, the well of people in love with Western stories, songs and movies is a lot deeper than the current well of Russell fans. “I’ve crossed over to a whole new audience, younger people or Western music or movie fans who do get it. And Europeans really get it. I could make my whole living in the UK because there’s so much interest in this. It charted right away and got rave reviews, even in the Financial Times.” It may take time to sink in, but The Rose of Roscrae will. It’s a masterpiece, a rich ballad that’s both inventive and authentic, brilliantly using one man to tell the entire story of the West.

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