Geography of love
by James M. Manheim
Tom Russell was born in Los Angeles in 1950 and now lives in El Paso. To use the words of one of his songs, he "took the long way around" to get there, passing through "the wide-open countries and the heart-attack towns" St. Louis, New York, and Bisbee, Arizona, among them. Since the late 1980s he's been known to those who follow the countryish side of folk music as a terrific songwriter with a bent toward story songs set in specific locales and with a feel for the gloom of the barroom. I think he was creatively destined to come to the Texas-Mexican border, that fascinating land where pairs of towns eye each other across a river with two names. Even before coming to El Paso he had written songs set along the border, including the great "Haley's Comet," a song about the death, drunk and forgotten, of rock 'n' roll pioneer Bill Haley in Harlingen, Texas. The only reason you might not hear it at Russell's Ark concert on Wednesday, April 23, is that he's an extraordinarily prolific composer of top-notch material.
Texas focused Russell's efforts in a whole new way, though, and the result was Borderland, an album released about two years ago. Flavored throughout with Tex-Mex accordion, the album offers big, ambitious songs that map Russell's gloomy geography of love onto the landscape of south Texas. The highlight is "Touch of Evil," a tale of a dissolving relationship tightly woven with scenes from the Orson Welles film of the same name, which took place across the river from El Paso in Ciudad Juárez, and with images of a bar in modern-day Ciudad Juárez where Russell's protagonist sinks into drunken bitterness and where he and a Mexican bartender remember the film. And there are suggestions that the song's protagonist is Russell himself: he sings that he came from Venice, California, where Touch of Evil was actually shot, and grew up "near those canals
where they filmed the longest pan shot ever made." The song's a virtuoso effort, complex but nonetheless passionate, continuing to deliver new twists long after you think it's over and done with.
Indeed, one thing that has brought Russell to the top of his songwriting game is his growing ability to keep you guessing about how far his songs represent his own experience. That's the key to a really good story songit should be neither confessional nor coolly neutral. His songs are general enough that he makes a fine collaborator with like-minded writers, among them Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson (with Ian he wrote the folk standard "Navajo Rug"), Dave Alvin, Katy Moffatt, and Nanci Griffith, with whom he wrote the country hit "Outbound Plane" and who appears on Russell's forthcoming album Modern Art. I'd be the first one on your block to get it, if I were you; if it even comes close to Borderland, it'll be well worth having.
[Originally published in April, 2003.]