Troubadours on the Train

Tom Russell bemoans the fact that the U.S. has become a 'giant strip mall of fear'

Generally, I consider the practice of publishing transcriptions of Q&A interviews with musical artists something of a lazy device, as if the journalist/author couldn't be bothered to engage in the craft of writing.

But when you're dealing with as gregarious and provocative a singer-songwriter as the neo-Beat, alt-country troubadour Tom Russell, it's damn hard to resist running his comments from an e-mail interview.

Russell was born in Los Angeles. He grew up under the influence of Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Charles Bukowski, 1960s folk-rock, Texas blues, Bakersfield-style country twang, Hollywood decay and hard-boiled tales of life in the margins: crime, carnies, cowboys.

His songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Ian Tyson, Suzy Bogguss and Guy Clark. He has made 19 albums during the past 30 years, the latest of which is Love and Fear, which will be released March 21 by Hightone Records.

He answered these questions by e-mail about 1 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 18.

I first asked Russell about his 2005 album, Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski and a Ballad for Gone America, an inventive cycle of songs, reminiscences, soundbites and storytelling in homage to his favorite writers and musicians: Woody Guthrie, Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Steinbeck, Bukowski, Dave Van Ronk, Edward Abbey and Harry Partch. It includes spoken word sections by Little Jack Horton, legendary circus midget and all-around raconteur.

Hotwalker was something of a stylistic and structural departure. What was the reaction from the general listenership? How about from longtime fans--were they prepared for this project?

Great reaction worldwide. The "fans" have come to expect eccentric leaps. I'm writing only for myself, so I go where I want to go artistically. As far as I'm concerned, there's not much happening in music anyway, so the playing field is wide open.

In some ways, Hotwalker seems like an answer to the age-old question: "What are your influences?" But it's more than that. With the album, you're paying tribute to the artists who helped give you your point of view, and helped in the making of Tom Russell--is that kinda it?

These were the voices of inspiration. The passionate scribes. All that has been washed away. No one has that kind of artistic courage anymore. Lenny Bruce, Kerouac, Bukowski, Dylan ... .Where are the characters now with guts and vision?

What drew you to the Beats, Steinbeck, Bukowski and some of these other nonconformist writers? How have they influenced what you do?

They carved themselves an outside position, away from the stranglehold of academia and the New York literary scene. You couldn't pigeonhole these people. I'm inspired by their honesty.

How about the composer Harry Partch? And, a favorite from around these parts, Edward Abbey?

Odd characters. Passionate about what they did. Offbeat. Too many people these days mouth the doctrine of the right or the left. I liked these cats who came from odd angles.

The concept of "gone America" sounds attractive and mysterious to me. Can you summarize what you mean by that?

Gone means Gone. The old America. Character-driven America. It's all over. We live in a giant strip mall of fear. Journalism, fiction writing and great songwriting seem to be a thing of the past. It's the dead fucking the dead ... in a vacuum. To re-quote Bukowski.

Now you're back to an album of more traditional songs--albeit dark ones.

Maybe. It was quite hard mining this territory.

I am guessing that the title character in the song "The Pugilist at 59" is not you, because your bio says you were born in 1950. Is it a specific person or a nonfictional character?

It's me, all right. A day in the life. I lied about the age. I'm 49 going on 87. Numbers mean nothing to me. I'm interested in hitting a younger audience. I get sick of hearing people bitch about age all the time. We've been experiencing pain since we were born. If you want to count up your years, go ahead. I believe in seasons of the heart.

How do you think a boxer is like a songwriter?

We keep throwing the jab. We get knocked down. We get up. We keep reaching for the dream. Some nights, we can put together magic combinations.

Your songs can be beautiful and brutal, or both at the same time. Does that pretty much define love for you?

Love sometimes descends into brutality. "Stolen Children" is about parents getting even by stealing kids. Yet the average asshole pretends to be concerned about Iraq. Cruelty begins at home, in the backyard, around the BBQ table.

What do you see as the relationship between love and fear?

All basic emotions come under either love or fear. Anger, hatred, jealousy, etc., are fear-laden.

As do many writers, artists and musicians in the West, you exhibit a fascination with Mexico, its culture and people. What do you think Mexico represents in the body of American song, and in your songs?

Mexico is the Mother Country. Mexico City is the Rome of the Western World. In the body of American song, Mexico usually is typified by cliché--señoritas and banditos. To me, it represents history and a deeper form of passion.

Russell will play a concert with his usual accompanist, Andrew Hardin, as well as fellow singer-songwriters Steve Young, Eliza Gilkyson and Peter Rowan, March 2 at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

The event is the kickoff for the week-long "Roots on the Rails" train trip, during which he and the other artists will travel on the Sierra Madre Express, south from Nogales through Mexico's Copper Canyon and back. Fans who have paid more than $4,000 each will experience the journey, which will include daily performances on the train and off. For the third year in a row, the trip is fully booked, according to organizers.