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Pocketmags Digital Magazines

RENAISSANCE MAN

Tom Russell is often dubbed the “Father of Americana” – even though he’s uncomfortable with the label. He moves around genres and crosses continents, and his songs have been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash and Joe Ely to kd lang…

SINGER, SONGWRITER, NOVELIST

SONGWRITER SERIES : No.8

With a brand new album, October In The Railroad Earth, you might think Tom Russell has enough on his plate. But as Steve Earle might say, he ain’t ever satisfied. Russell is that rare beast who excels at all manner of artistic pursuits. This Renaissance man paints wonderful canvases, has written a crime novel, and even won a prize for his collection of essays, Ceremonies Of The Horsemen. Artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Tom Paxton have respectively recorded his songs Manzanar and The Sky Above And The Mud Below. Born in LA, with a master’s degree in sociology of law and criminology, Russell also spent time teaching in West Africa, drove a taxi in Queens, and doesn’t fit the cookie cutter idea of a country singer. He and his Swiss wife, Nadine, now divide their time between homes in Texas and Switzerland, and this Anglophile is looking forward to returning to the UK for another barnstorming tour.

What was the tipping point, the song that changed your fortune forever?

Probably one of the first songs I ever wrote, back in 1978, a kind of Tex-Mex corrido, a long story song called Gallo Del Cielo. It got a lot of attention immediately. The great Canadian cowboy singer Ian Tyson recorded it, and later on Joe Ely of The Flatlanders, then Bob Dylan remarked on it and Bruce

Springsteen sent me a very nice letter after Joe Ely had sung it to him, and Springsteen asked: “Who the hell wrote that?”

Would you rather write alone or with co-writers?

I generally prefer to write solo, I wrote most of the songs on my new record solo, plus one with my wife, who came up with a great title about how the road gets rough. But I have co-written over the years; my biggest collaborator was Ian Tyson, who’s still a hero of mine; he not only was in one of the big folk acts of the 60s [Ian & Sylvia], but in the 80s also resuscitated cowboy music, and we wrote Navajo Rug and umpteen other songs. Writing with him was a real learning experience. I also wrote a lot of songs with Katy Moffatt, like Walking On The Moon.

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