FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.  

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
November 14, 2019
Laura Carlsen
Mexico’s LeBaron Massacre and the War That Will Not Cease
Joe Emersberger
Oppose the Military Coup in Bolivia. Spare Us Your “Critiques”
Ron Jacobs
Trump’s Drug Deal Goes to Congress: Impeachment, Day One
Paul Edwards
Peak Hubris
Tamara Pearson
US and Corporations Key Factors Behind Most Violent Year Yet in Mexico
Jonah Raskin
Love and Death in the Age of Revolution
Robert Hunziker
Climate Confusion, Angst, and Sleeplessness
W. T. Whitney
To Confront Climate Change Humanity Needs Socialism
John Feffer
Examining Trump World’s Fantastic Claims About Ukraine
Nicky Reid
“What About the Children?” Youth Rights Before Parental Police States
Binoy Kampmark
Incinerating Logic: Bush Fires and Climate Change
John Horning
The Joshua Tree is Us
Andrew Stewart
Noel Ignatiev and the Great Divide
Cesar Chelala
Soap Operas as Teaching Tools
Chelli Stanley
In O’odham Land
November 13, 2019
Vijay Prashad
After Evo, the Lithium Question Looms Large in Bolivia
Charles Pierson
How Not to End a Forever War
Kenneth Surin
“We’ll See You on the Barricades”: Bojo Johnson’s Poundshop Churchill Imitation
Nick Alexandrov
Murder Like It’s 1495: U.S.-Backed Counterinsurgency in the Philippines
George Ochenski
Montana’s Radioactive Waste Legacy
Brian Terrell
A Doubtful Proposition: a Reflection on the Trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7
Nick Pemberton
Assange, Zuckerberg and Free Speech
James Bovard
The “Officer Friendly” Police Fantasy
Dean Baker
The Logic of Medical Co-Payments
Jeff Mackler
Chicago Teachers Divided Over Strike Settlement
Binoy Kampmark
The ISC Report: Russian Connections in Albion?
Norman Solomon
Biden and Bloomberg Want Uncle Sam to Defer to Uncle Scrooge
Jesse Jackson
Risking Lives in Endless Wars is Morally Wrong and a Strategic Failure
Manuel García, Jr.
Criminalated Warmongers
November 12, 2019
Nino Pagliccia
Bolivia and Venezuela: Two Countries, But Same Hybrid War
Patrick Cockburn
How Iran-Backed Forces Are Taking Over Iraq
Jonathan Cook
Israel is Silencing the Last Voices Trying to Stop Abuses Against Palestinians
Jim Kavanagh
Trump’s Syrian See-Saw: From Pullout to Pillage
Susan Babbitt
Fidel, Three Years Later
Dean Baker
A Bold Plan to Strengthen and Improve Social Security is What America Needs
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Trump’s Crime Against Humanity
Victor Grossman
The Wall and General Pyrrhus
Yoko Liriano
De Facto Martial Law in the Philippines
Ana Paula Vargas – Vijay Prashad
Lula is Free: Can Socialism Be Restored?
Thomas Knapp
Explainer: No, House Democrats Aren’t Violating Trump’s Rights
Wim Laven
Serve With Honor, Honor Those Who Serve; or Support Trump?
Colin Todhunter
Agrarian Crisis and Malnutrition: GM Agriculture Is Not the Answer
Binoy Kampmark
Walls in the Head: “Ostalgia” and the Berlin Wall Three Decades Later
Akio Tanaka
Response to Pete Dolack Articles on WBAI and Pacifica
Nyla Ali Khan
Bigotry and Ideology in India and Kashmir: the Legacy of the Babri Masjid Mosque
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail