FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Tom Russell in the Heart of the Folk Hotel

It would be easy to say that Tom Russell’s new album Folk Hotel (Frontera Records) is a tribute to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the ’60s, and let it go at that, except this album is like a summoning of the spirit of the ghosts of that period and equally important the feel, musically and lyrically. It is not the kind of album where one track sticks out above the others because all the songs and the playing are on an high equal level. Each song could be considered a room in that hotel, and in those rooms are side trips to the Southwest, Wales, Belfast and Copenhagen that could be dreams, but maybe not.

The Village Russell sings about is long gone. The buildings are still there, but it was over when the first McDonald’s opened followed by a succession of chain stores. Maybe walking the winding streets on the west side of Sixth Avenue, you can find the remnants of those ghosts and the feel of the place when there was “music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.”

Russell is a compelling storyteller, and one of his greatest strengths is the way he puts his own experiences into songs you initially think are about something else. He also leaves a lot to the power of suggestion. Detailed as some of the songs may be, he leaves enough room for the listener to form a picture in their own mind.

Much of the album’s charm is in the instrumentation and the sounds of the instruments, whether it’s Russel’s finger-picked acoustic guitar, Redd Volkaert’s subtle electric leads or Joel Guzman’s accordion. The expert picking itself a tribute a wide variety of sources. Vocally, Russell is often channeling, sometimes specific singers, but more often the essence of those singers.

Folk Hotel is anything but nostalgic. It is not saying, oh gee, wasn’t it great when all those people would sing nice songs in coffeehouses. It’s an album about pursuing art and creating magic, and that the people creating that art and bringing often ancient songs to life were not necessarily living easy lives, but quite often lives of desperation.

Russell also shows a deep understanding about how folk music works. “Rise Again, Handsome Johnny,” a song in part about JFK’s assassination, but also about how Russell had to play a football game that weekend is not set to a reverent melody, but to a tune similar to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stagolee,” but such songs as Riley Puckett’s “McKinley” (covered in a well-known version by the Greenbriar Boys, or “Mr. Garfield’s Been Shot Down” weren’t exactly mournful.

Perhaps Russell’s greatest achievement is that by writing about then, he’s really writing about now as songs such as “Harlan Clancy” and “The Last Time I Saw Hank” make clear. What happened during that actually brief period in the Village was also happening elsewhere on a smaller scale. The climate that permitted that era to thrive is long gone, and when it does happen, it’s quickly wiped out by gentrification.

The album includes two bonus tracks. The first is a fine finger-picked cover of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” sung in a duet with Joe Ely, with Joel Guzman on accordion. Alternating verses, Russell and Ely sing it like they lived it. The second is “Scars On His Ankles,” a song about the great Texas blues singer, Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, but (typically of this album) it’s also about Texas journalist, Grover Lewis, who was one of the best writers Rolling Stone published. With Max De Bernardi providing Lightnin’ styled guitar, and interspersing singing with talking parts, some from Lewis’ writing, Russell spins the story of the time they met.

Available with, but not included in the album is a Lyrics Book, that includes Russell’s notes on the songs, stories of people such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ian Tyson and Leonard Cohen, each song and story illustrated by a Russell Painting. It is beautifully done with Russell’s notes making the origins of each song quite clear. It is available as a bundle (or separately) at the Frontera Records site.

Earlier this year Russell released Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia (True North). Ian & Sylvia were by far the greatest folk duo of the ’60s. Unlike a lot of the groups of that period, they weren’t about singing rousing versions of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” They seriously explored traditional folk music, including the folk music of their country, Canada, and delved into blues and country as well. Their albums always featured great guitar work, stunning and original harmonies, and early on they started writing songs such as “Four Strong Winds,” “You Were On My Mind” and “Summer Wages.” Long before anyone knew who Gram Parsons was, Ian & Sylvia were mixing up folk, rock and country music, always with the best players. Bob Dylan did several of their songs on The Basement Tapes, and revisited “The French Girl” in rehearsals with The Grateful Dead.

Working with vocalist Cindy Church and guitarist Grant Siemens, Russell leaves off the songs mentioned above in favor of album tracks from their fifth album So Much For Dreaming on, including many of my favorite songs including “Wild Geese,” “The Renegade,” “Play One More” and “Rio Grande.”  Russell has worked with both singers, both playing and writing. He understands what they did and he has it down, to the extent that there are times on this album, that if I didn’t know what it was, I would think I was hearing an Ian & Sylvia outtake. One of the songs is one he co-wrote with Ian Tyson, “When The Wolves No Longer Sing.”

At the end of the disc are two bonus tracks of Ian & Sylvia demos of “Grey Morning” and “The French Girl.”

More articles by:

Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter.  

January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail