By Gregory McNamee
THE FIRST, AND nearly the last, time singer-songwriter Tom Russell performed in Tucson was 20 years ago. "I played in some restaurant called the Solarium out on Tanque Verde," he recalls. "It was horrible. There I was, stuck up in the rafters, playing to a bunch of people eating steak and lobster."
Russell went on to forge a career in music, playing in clubs in his native California and up and down the East Coast. But he made a real name for himself in Norway, of all places, where he recorded three albums for Rounder Records. He stayed away from Tucson until 1994, when he, Dave Alvin (The Blasters), and Peter Case (The Plimsouls) released Tulare Dust, a tribute album to country maverick Merle Haggard. The three brought their Haggard road show to the Club Congress. Those who were there remember it as one of the best concerts of the year.
Having recently relocated from New York to West Texas, Russell will play a benefit for Border Beat, a local literary journal, on the night of November 22. "I'm forgetting about the Solarium and making a new start," he says. "It'll be like playing Tucson for the first time." He plans to perform songs from his new album, Song of the West (HighTone Records), an eclectic set of tunes including favorites like "Gallo del Cielo," "The Banks of the Musselshell," "Alkali," and "Navajo Rug." Unless he sees a lot of cowboy hats in the audience, Russell says, he'll also include songs from his recent folk-rock record The Long Way Around, and from an album in progress, a "folk-opera concept record of immigrant songs." If cowboy hats predominate, however, he'll keep the set on the C&W side.
Russell has long been known as a musician's musician, and his songs have been recorded by a number of artists, among them Ian Tyson, Joe Ely, and Johnny Cash. Suzy Bogguss had a minor hit last year with Russell's "Outbound Plane," and "Navajo Rug" gave Jerry Jeff Walker a place on the country charts 10 years ago. It doesn't bother him much that his own versions of his songs get little airplay on country stations. "None of the artists I admire gets any airplay these days," he says. "You don't hear Buck Owens, or Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, or George Jones there, either. I wrote off mainstream country radio 10 years ago, when it crossed over to pop and dance music." Still, Russell's carved a solid place on the Americana playlist, which figures on a hundred or so stations across the country, including Tucson's KXCI-FM. His last three albums made the Americana top-10 list, while Tulare Dust held the number-one spot for several months.
Joining Russell on Saturday will be guitarist Andrew Hardin, who's played on several of Russell's albums and who has recently released a new instrumental album featuring appearances by Amos Garrett and Albert Lee. Local favorite John Coinman opens the show.
Tom Russell performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 22, in the upstairs Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $15, available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave. (795-4494). For information about the show and other events in the Border Beat benefit series, call 321-0928.
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