Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Russell's considered the real poet of U.S. singer-songwriters, capturing images and moods of today and the past decades, especially Western tales.  He's also well-connected to Canada, having co-written the great cowboy number Navajo Rug with Ian Tyson, and co-authoring a book of music quotes with Sylvia Tyson.  He is a chronicler of humanity, usually looking at the down side of the American dream, but when he's tackled a subject, the poor of spirit are given back some bit of dignity.

The veteran story teller is obsessed with the dark and sad stories of old Hollywood this time, with songs about Elizabeth Taylor, Sterling Hayden and troubled 50's child star Bobby Driscoll.  A Land Called "Way Out There" starts with the flaming car crash death of James Dean, and Roll The Credits, Johnny features an unnamed movie star talking about her past glory days.  There's some Mexican border town bleakness thrown in, and a couple more songs featuring death, which is the commonality here, and redemption the hope.  Of course, Russell's songs are always cinematic, so the movie themes are pretty much his perfect target.

But it's the title track that provides the surprising subject matter this time out.  Here we get a romanticized version of the story of young Bob Dylan, living in Minnesota in the Mesabi Iron Range, his hometown Hibbing built on feeding the steel mills of America's war effort.  We get pictures of him hearing Howlin' Wolf on the late night radio, and pounding piano in the high school gymn, hoping to escape the work his father did.  Russell says Dylan is the reason he started in music in the first place, so to have him immortalized by this master American storyteller is fitting.  Plus, there's a nifty bonus track of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall included as well, a slow duet with Lucinda Williams.

Other collaborators here include the Tex-Mex modernists Calexico, Texas Tornado and Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Meyers, and the idiosyncratic Van Dyke Parks.  It's interesting that 26 albums into a career packed with highlights, he continues to advance, with more sounds and experiments than ever before.

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