Tom Russell – Mesabi

January 01, 1970

(Shout Factory)


Over the course of his prolific career, Tom Russell has
documented the often heartbreaking history of America’s western environs, sharing
sobering stories from the viewpoint of dusty characters and unheralded heroes.
With his craggy vocals and squinty eyed perspective, he’s risen in the ranks of
genuine American troubadours, one who reveres tradition while lamenting its
skewered promises. Like Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, John Stewart, Jerry Jeff
Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he possesses a rugged narrative style that fills
his material with both resilience and reflection.


Mesabi, Russell’s latest release, follows suit, and with
references that run rampant – Dylan, James Dean and Liz Taylor are all
name-checked within geographical fall lines that stretch from squalid south of
the border tourist traps to the distorted haze of L.A. and the Minnesota iron
range which gives the album its title – the progression sometimes seems random.
Even so, these true-life chronicles detailing Disney’s ill-fated child stars Ukulele
Ike and Jimmy Driscoll and the cursed career of character actor Sterling Hayden
remain emotionally engaging. Time may have obscured their stories, but
Russell’s resolute delivery boasts an urgency and intimacy that bring their
tales to life.


As always, Russell’s articulate arrangements embolden the
material and give them the grit it deserves. An all star line-up – Lucinda
Williams, Van Dyke Parks, Will Kimbrough, Calexico and Augie Meyers among them
– provides backup support, but the most prominent presence comes in the form of
Mexicali horns
used to detail the distinctive soundscapes. The mariachi brass of “Farewell
Never Never Land” and “And God Created Border Times,” the jaunty vaudeville
croon of “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike,” and the gypsy flamenco strum that
swirls through “Jai Lai” provide an authenticity that reflects Russell’s exotic
environs. Yet, much of Mesabi is
mournful – check his somber cover of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with
Lucinda Williams – making for a fitting reflection of somber circumstances.


Die-hard devotees will also want to investigate a new
limited edition DVD entitled Don’t Look
, which details Russell’s rich career. Yet as his fans realized long
ago, Russell’s music is as expressive as it is exacting.

DOWNLOAD: “Jai Lai,” “”The Lonesome
of Ukulele Ike,” “Farewell Never Never Land” LEE ZIMMERMAN


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