Ever the outsider, the art of singer-songwriter Tom Russell is as expressive as his music.
For many in the horseback cowboy world, life wouldn’t be the same without one or two Tom Russell songs worming themselves into the back of your mind or even into conversation. It’s amazing that for a guy who graduated from the University of California with a master’s degree in criminology and then split the country in 1969 to teach sociology in Nigeria during the Biafran War would surface as one of the most influential and diverse creative spirits ever to establish himself in the culture of the American West.
I say that because he is more than a singer/songwriter. He is also a published essayist and highly collected painter. Of his songwriting, Russell told me several years ago why he was driven to write music.
“Good songs can amuse, hurt or divert and sometimes they can stop time for maybe a holy moment,” he says. “They suck us in, slap us around, kick us in the belly and heart, and then push us back out into the world with a memory we’ll never purge from our blood. They beguile us with their sing-song rhyme and tinkle-down melodies, yet they are imbued with truer feel for human history, poetry, emotion and cold hard facts of life than a thousand dusty tomes from social scientists, poets, politicians, theologians and academic historians. The good songs endure. They travel. I taste them like blood in my mouth. Songs have taught me more of the deep essential mysteries than school, politics and religion. Songs are my religion.”
He looked at me for a moment, and then said, “That. That’s what attracted me to the trade.”
It’s never a simple answer with Russell. It’s why he is so good at what he does. It’s why he likes old guitars with stories spilling out of them.
“Old guitars,” he says, “have absorbed the heat and smoke and teardrops of every room they’ve been played in. There are ghosts in the Rosewood cracks. ‘Wood never dies,’ as Leonard Cohen said.”
Russell’s art carries the same complexity in expression. In fact his artwork has been described as expressionistic within the genre of Western art, a description he agrees with. It’s a confrontation of the modern West with the “West That Has Passed” colliding with color and emotion. He is our Edvard Munch providing us with a primal Western scream that is as expressive as his songwriting.
Just look at a few of lines from his classic horse thief song, “The Sky Above, The Mud Below.”
Well the trial commenced and ended quick, they didn’t have a hope / Deac says, We’ll cut your hair now boys and you can braid yourselves a rope. / The Old Testament, it says somewhere / eye for eye and hair for hair / covet not thy neighbor’s mare / I believe it’s Revelations.
No dusty, social scientist tome there.
Of his art and its origins, Russell says, “You can speak of influences, inspirations, chance encounters, raw visions, memories, outsiderness, folk art, native art, modernism, technique and all the realms of expressionism ‘til you’re ‘Picasso-Blue’ in the face when basically the artist is trying to dance with the paint (or the world) magically, as he did when he was a child. Trying to free up and cast off the shackles that have been heaped down on us. The critics and gallery owners and museums are left to grapple with the rhetoric of art. A Picasso quote works for me: ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ “
Being raised in the West also helped him, “My father, the son of an Iowa sheriff and horse trader, moved west and was involved for a while in the film trade — that time in Hollywood when there were hundreds of thousands of horses in the L.A. Basin. Horses involved in the Western film industry.” (Russell writes extensively about the subject in his essay “Ceremonies of the Horsemen: Horses of the L.A. Basin.”)
“Late in his life the legendary gunfighter Wyatt Earp ended up in Hollywood trying to get into the movies,” he continued. “A young John Wayne became Wyatt’s friend. Wyatt’s last words were, ‘God owes me an explanation for all the things that have happened to me in my life.’ Wyatt wasn’t a faster gun than God. Our notion of the West goes on forever — from Tombstone, melting into the Hollywood dream, a dream world that Wyatt could not penetrate. These memories are bound to slip into your art.”
As prolific and colorful he is as a songwriter, Tom Russell is equally so in his art, and he recently gathered up a collection of his work in a new monograph, “The Ballad of Western Expressionism.” Its 90-some pages feature a visual treasure trove of art along with his thoughts on his art and art that has inspired him. It gives further confirmation that Russell’s place is squarely on the hurricane deck of modern Western culture.
You will learn a lot about him, like how he got his tattoo.
“When I was a teenager, my father gave me a high-quality, museum print of Henry Farny’s painting from 1906, The Song of the Talking Wire. It depicts an Indian named Long Day listening at the white man’s telegraph pole. Long Day told fellow Indians that he heard spirit voices over the wire. Farny’s painting also reflects the waning of the Native American West, much the same way that James Fraser’s great statue, End of the Trail, portrays an Indian slumped over a horse with a bowed head at the symbolic end of the trail.
“In 1974 I had the image tattooed on the side of my left calf, since “End of the Trail” was the title of my first song that gained recognition. Ed Hardy and Bob Roberts, pioneers of the tattoo trade, designed the tattoo. Vanguards of personal myth. Back then it was mostly sailors, hookers and convicts that got tattooed. I was in proper company – ever the outsider.”