On "Love & Fear" (2006), Tom Russell shows that tough guys have feelings, too. Throughout the 11 tracks, the singer learns hard lessons about love, from the problems of falling for a gorgeous woman to the realization that no one else can make you happy. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if he hawked into a spittoon after shutting off the recording equipment.
The Texas singer/songwriter - who will perform a Grassroots Concert on Friday - opens his latest full-length album with the punchy "Pugilist at 59," which could've been on the soundtrack of the last "Rocky" film. "Stealing Electricity" is a catchy little number about a Mexican who accidentally electrocutes himself while trying to hook up some free juice.
However, boxing and power lines are just launching pads for Russell to espouse wisdom through his classic country voice, organ-and-guitar instrumentation and choice lyrics.
On "K.C. Violin," he shows his wisdom is hard-won as he pines over the one that got away - "I thought of you this morning/But I learned to let it go." On "The Sound of One Heart Breaking," he asks the age-old question: If a heart breaks when no one else is around, did it really happen? He begs for a do-over on life on "All the Fine Young Ladies."
If you spin
Artist: Tom Russell.
Albums: "Love & Fear" (2006) and "Wounded Heart of America (Tom Russell Songs)" (2007).
Label: Hightone Records.
Highs: The songs have genuine feeling, whether about the nature of pain ("It Goes Away") or immigration politics ("Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?").
Lows: Russell gets loungy on a couple tracks, but I just wanted to get back to the old-school country tunes.
Grade (both albums): A
On the Web:
For song samples from these CDs, click here.
But the album's highlight is "It Goes Away," one of the most genuinely uplifting songs I've heard in recent years. The tune brings in Gretchen Peters - who will take the Grassroots Concert stage herself on April 18 - to harmonize with Russell. It boasts nice verses - one is about a big-hearted 16-year-old wallflower ("His heart breaks when the girls go his way"), another is about an old guy who feels much the same. In a gem of a thesis statement, Russell concludes that "It might take years/Or 100,000 tears/But one day the sky will clear/It goes away."
Russell's prolific career is further showcased on last year's "Wounded Heart of America (Tom Russell Songs)," which features 14 covers of his work by other artists and four new tunes.
Of the 14 tribute tracks, several are solid base hits and a few are home runs. Russell's songs sound great from the mouths of other talented folkies, many of whom have fun with the instrumentation (except for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who simply reads "Stealing Electricity").
Texas singer/songwriter Tom Russell, who will perform a Grassroots Concert on Friday in Nisswa, has put out two new albums since 2006.
Johnny Cash covers the rich story tune "Veteran's Day"; Joe Ely delivers lush Latin instrumentation to a whooping live audience on "Galla Del Cielo"; Iris Dement shows Russell can write for women characters on "Acres of Corn"; Suzy Bogguss beautifies the end-of-relationship tune "Outbound Plane"; and the Texas Tornadoes tear through "Haley's Comet."
Russell's new songs aren't throwaways, even though they are labeled "bonus tracks." "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" has particularly been building buzz as it tours the modern political landscape. If the U.S. wants to put a wall along the border, Russell asks, who's going to build it when all the illegal immigrants are back in Mexico?
Other lyrics take issue with religious fundamentalists, but at the end of the day, Russell is more irked by the "white man in a golf shirt with a cell phone in his ear." It seems this old pugilist can still deliver a punch.
Russell will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Nisswa Community Center. Admission is $10-$15.
On the Web: www.tomrussell.com.
JOHN HANSEN, entertainment editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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