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'We may not be famous, but we're getting by.'
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Unless you’re a hardcore Americana enthusiast, you may not know the name Tom Russell. However, you’ve probably heard his songs.

Over the course of 19 albums, Russell has penned scores of wonderfully eloquent and beguiling tunes.

From country ballads to flat-out rockers to Stax-inspired grooves, Russell has repeatedly shifted artistic gears while still maintaining a sound all his own.

His genre-busting collaborations with such disparate talents as soul shouter Barrence Whitfield and guilty man Dave Alvin (of Blasters fame), have resulted in the kind of comfortingly familiar – yet highly combustible – works that set the bar for what contemporary American roots music should be in 2004.

And, in case you’ve never stumbled upon one of Russell’s small-label efforts, you may have heard artists like Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, k.d. lang, Iris Dement or Suzy Boggus tackling one of his cuts.

“I wouldn’t say he’s broadly known in the Savannah Folk Music Society,” says its president Hank Weisman. “But we’ve got 3 or 4 die-hard fans, and they were amazed we were able to book him.”

Another die-hard fan is David Letterman, who has invited the singer to perform on The Late Show on more than one occasion, despite Russell’s relative anonymity to mainstream viewers.

“Dave’s got a big ranch in Montana, and he’s really into the cowboy thing,” explains Russell in a slow and gravelly drawl. “He really likes Nanci Griffith and he loved Warren Zevon, and I guess I’m somewhere in between the two.”

The ‘cowboy thing,’ as he puts it, refers to Tom’s fondness for writing tunes about the American West – a hobby that has resulted in more than a few albums.

“I’ve been concerned that there seems to be very little contemporary Western music being written,” he says.

“A lot of it has just been recycled Tex Ritter and Marty Robbins stuff. That’s why I’m trying to bring my own feel to the genre. That’s the only way it can evolve.”

During a break between tours, Russell – who plays nearly 200 dates a year with his longtime foil, ace guitarist Andrew Hardin – spoke to me by phone.

Connect: Been to Savannah before?

Tom Russell: No, and I’ve really been meaning to get down there. We’re kind of missing out because we’re literally flying in that morning and flying out that evening. It’s tight, but we’ll be back.

Connect: You stay on the road a lot.

Tom Russell: Well, the crowds keep getting bigger with each record, all over the world, so I’m in a good position to be able to write and record only what I want. Being on an aggressive indie label like Hightone, I can explore in any direction.

Connect: It’s great they give you that much leeway.

Tom Russell: Well, I got signed back when Dave Alvin and I did that acoustic Merle Haggard tribute called Tulare Dust, which pretty much created the whole Americana radio format, and was their longest #1 Record. Unfortunately, it also spawned the dastardly tribute album phenomenon. They’re small enough to give me a lot of attention, and we’ve grown together.

Connect: What’s next for you?

Tom Russell: I have one coming out in February which is a look at the West Coast music, art and poetry scene I grew up in during the ‘60s. It’s partially about Charles Bukowski, who I had a long correspondence with. There’s a book called Tough Company coming out, and there’s a guy working on a DVD on me, too. It’s sort of a triple whammy.

Connect: I dug your remake of “Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack of Hearts” on your last CD. That’s a tough one to cover.

Tom Russell: It was hard. It’s like a vaudevillian, Shakespearean, cowboy song. Not many people can figure it out... I can’t.

Connect: Even Dylan may not have.

Tom Russell: (laughs) That’s what Ian Tyson said. (laughs) I don’t like being a curmudgeon, but the window for me as far as being moved by songs was from ‘63 to ‘69. The fact that Dylan made Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde in about a year and a half is unreal. It’s totally baffling from a songwriting standpoint. People ask me what I listen to today. Well, there’s just not a lot of writers that really move me like that.

Connect: Do you use a setlist?

Tom Russell: He certainly doesn’t know what I’m gonna play. I have an idea of a setlist, but I divert from it.

Connect: You must play well together.

Tom Russell: He’s a top of the line player, and after 21 years on and off, he can follow whatever I do. We travel all over the world, and even though we’re not famous, we’re getting by pretty well, and we can do what we want to do.


Tom Russell and Andrew Hardin play The Roundhouse at 1 pm and 4:20 pm, Sunday, October 10th.