Tom Russell Turns up the Volume

Folk singer Russell crosses the border into the realms of the electric.

Though widely known as a folk singer with leanings toward plaintive Merle Haggard-style country, Tom Russell is no stranger to rock and roll. The Texas-based songwriter and musician learned his chops playing in bar bands in Vancouver and San Francisco, spent time on the fringes of the outlaw country movement in Austin in the early '70s, and doesn't shy from pulling out a few bar chords when they're needed.

On his new album Borderland, due out on April 17 from High-Tone Records, Russell and longtime sideman Andrew Hardin trade in their acoustic guitars for electric axes. The album is produced by guitarist Gurf Morlix, well known for his work with Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen and other alt-country artists and a mean rock player himself. "Gurf did a great job on the album," Russell says. "It's got presence, a good rocking sound, certainly more so than the last couple of albums we've done."

With Morlix, singer Eliza Gilkyson, Tex-Mex accordionist Joel Guzman and renowned Small Faces keyboard master Ian MacLagan, Russell and Hardin tear their way through a suite of songs that, as Russell says, are about the border between the United States and Mexico--and, in some cases, about the border between men and women, a subject that he's researched in his continuing school-of-hard-knocks education.

Among those songs are "Hills of Old Juarez," which Russell describes as a drug-running ballad in the spirit of Marty Robbins; "When Sinatra Played Juarez," highlighting Guzman's rambunctious accordion work and recalling the days when Ciudad Juarez outshone Las Vegas as an entertainment (and quick divorce) capital; and "Down the Rio Grande" and "California Snow," both co-written with Dave Alvin, Russell's collaborator, along with Peter Case, for the 1995 Merle Haggard tribute album Tulare Dust.

Russell and Hardin will be playing songs from Borderland, along with selections from Russell's 1999 release The Man From God Knows Where, on Thursday, February 22 at 8 p.m. at the Boondocks Lounge (3306 N. First Ave.; 690-0991). Tickets for the show, produced by Border Beat, the Border Arts Journal, are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Boondocks and Hear's Music (2508 N. Campbell Ave.; 795-4494). For more information, call Border Beat at 321-0928.