One of the highlights of this year's South by Southwest festival was a performance by one of America's greatest living songwriters, Tom Russell.
Russell's deep baritone voice often has drawn comparisons to Johnny Cash, but his storytelling ability is unique. The annals of contemporary American songwriters are clogged with phony sentiment, macho posturing and weasely self pity, but Russell chronicles the realities of American life and its myths with the clarity and honesty of a mountain spring. His latest album includes songs about American heroes and anti-heroes Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali and Charles Bukowski.
The SXSW appearance was unusual for Russell, a maverick who seldom does festivals.
"I did it this year because I had the record out," he said of SXSW. "It's the first time I've played the festival officially. It's nice to get together with people from Germany and Sweden that I don't usually get to see, but this sweaty idea that somebody's gonna discover some new band or song... I'd love for somebody to clear all the crap off the table and let me hear a new song but I haven't heard a new song in a long time. I went to see Chip Taylor and there's Johnny Bush (who wrote "Whiskey River") sitting there. He got up and played to five people."
Of "Modern Art," Russell says "I like it a lot, it's the first one of my albums I've listened to a lot since making it. I'm starting to feel comfortable with my vocals. I was in a relationship that fell apart and I was writing songs for the album. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I don't want to write these kind of 'The Bitch Broke My Heart' songs. I'm not only over her, I'm over this kind of writing about it. So I decided to can everything except 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf.' I picked some of my favorite covers, things like 'The Dutchman,' which I think is one of the greatest songs ever written, and a version of 'Gulf Coast Highway' with Nanci Griffith.
"Then I sat down and asked myself who do I want to write about? Me, I've always wanted to write something about Mickey Mantle, so I wrote 'The Kid From Spavinaw.' Then I wrote 'Muhammad Ali.' The thing about those two is that they were famous for two lines that really resonated. Ali said 'No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,' and Mantle said 'If I knew I was gonna live this long I'd have taken better care of myself.' So I used those lines. The Mantle song is really about missing his father. It's more about that than it was about baseball. I wrote about Ali because I was such a huge fan. My grandmother painted a picture of him standing over Sonny Liston.
"Then I thought I'll write the first thing about myself that comes into my head and I thought of seeing the Beatles and Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl, a Hoagy Carmichael song I remembered, and I wrote 'Modern Art.'
"Dave Alvin wrote 'Bus Station.' He's a good friend, did the 'Tulare Dust' album with me. He was instrumental in getting me on High Tone records. The funny thing is I thought it would be cool to have Nanci Griffith sing it with me, then when Dave heard it he said 'I wrote it as a duet.' It's a great song to do that way, a couple in a bus station talking to each other. Nanci was great. I've known her since she was 15 years old. We were playing a campfire at Kerrville, Texas, in the mid '70s, it was a bunch of macho guys getting drunk and she was just timidly sitting in the back. Someone said 'Let's let her sing one' and she sang 'If I was a Child.' I was blown away. Now I open up for her in Europe when she plays big concert halls. She's been very loyal to me."
One of the most interesting songs on the album is based on a poem by Bukowski, "Crucifix in a Death Hand," with a bit of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" at the end.
"'Crucifix in a Death Hand' is a Bukowski poem about Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles and I recited it to myself for many years. I called up his wife and she said 'Go with it.' I actually interviewed him. I have a small book manuscript with 12 Gauge Press out of Sacramento. It's a book of my reflections on Bukowski and letters he sent to me along with drawings. The interviews are in the letters. 'Carmelita' is a tribute to Warren Zevon at the end, an L.A. reflection.
"Bukowski was a blue collar poet. He wrote a fine biographic novel, "Post Office," about working there for 20 years. Who's writing stuff like that? He worked in obscurity just because he didn't come out of the academy and wasn't embraced by the New York Times. He was uniquely American in that he was a really isolated dude. His attitude was 'F--- everybody, this is how I think.' That's more and more how I feel at this point. You've got nothing to lose by telling the truth. I'm beyond the age where I have to kiss anybody's ass because it wouldn't do me any good."