Tom Russell,
(Hightone, 2001)

There's something about Texas and songwriters. I could use up the alotted space for this review just listing noteworthy songwriters who have come from Texas or else have moved there and put down roots. There are so many exemplary names that listing them is pointless. Better to say that the artist at hand, Tom Russell, is another songwriter who does the Lone Star State proud.

Russell is something of a living legend among his colleagues, and this album does nothing to gainsay that status. The aptly named Borderland focuses on the border between Texas and Mexico (usually in the vicinity of Juarez) and tells stories about the people there. The songs speak for themselves. The best ones employ a good short story's grasp of people, how they interact and the things the artist should leave out in order to present the story best. What Russell leaves unsaid is often as important as what he says, and these spaces in the narratives add reality to the songs. The protagonists become real people whose motives are as cloudy as the real people we know, unlike the characters in so many songs whose roles are to create tidy scenarios and outcomes.

The disc starts out strong with "Touch of Evil." Few would attempt to write about love gone bad by interweaving straightforward sentiments like "Why don't you touch me any more?" with an evocation of Orson Welles in the movie that lends the song its title. Another pop culture icon appears in "When Sinatra Played Juarez," a reminiscence of bygone days by a piano player turned storekeeper.

But Russell's real subject is ordinary people and their struggles. "Hills of Old Juarez" chronicles the downfall of a man drawn into drug-dealing; the song echoes Marty Robbins' gunfighter ballads. "California Snow" (co-written with Dave Alvin) is the soliloquy of an INS agent who re-examines his life in the light of disturbing experiences on the job. "What Work Is" follows the narrator through the 1960s in Los Angeles. Through it all, the history and the landscapes in the songs get as much attention as the plotlines.

There are some good times interspersed with tales of difficult lives and love gone wrong. "The Road It Gives, the Road It Takes Away" (co-written with longtime collaborator Andrew Hardin) is an ode to the never-ending pursuit of good times while the narrator of the rocking "The Next Thing Smokin'" (co-written with Katy Moffatt) tramps out of the desert to demand passage on the next train out of town. "Let It Go" encourages a heartbroken person to get on with life.

Russell's voice resembles that of Johnny Cash, and its well-worn sound is perfect for these songs. His supporting cast includes Andrew Hardin, Gurf Morlix, Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LaFave, among others. Oliver Steck (trumpets) and Goel Guzman (accordion) deserve special notice for the contribution their playing makes to the album's ambiance.

If you like literate songwriting that tells intriguing stories about real people, look no further. It doesn't get any better than this.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 22 March 2003

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