Ghost Stories

Tom Russell conjures the spirits of his ancestors -- and tells the epic story of America's immigrant history -- on The Man from God Knows Where

For more than 10 years, singer/songwriter Tom Russell has been stopping in at St. Louis' Off Broadway club at least two or three times per annum. He's become such a fixture in that club that he recorded most of his live album there a couple of years back. But when he returns for two more shows -- Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1 -- he'll be doing something a bit different.

Russell's new album, The Man from God Knows Where (HighTone), is not just a collection of well-written country/folk songs. It's an epic song cycle, and Russell uses the history of his family to say something fresh about the history of America. His great-great-grandparents were immigrants from Norway and Ireland, and he gets into their minds, imagining their journey to a new land and the difficulties they encountered in surviving the vastness of the U.S.A. He conjures the fears and dreams of ordinary people trying to make their way in the world in the late 19th century. Eventually he tells the tale of his father, a man who earned a million dollars and then lost it. Charlie Russell becomes a perfect metaphor for the erosion of the American dream. And yet he never gives up, never loses pride. The Man from God Knows Where tells of heartbreak, failure and loss but retains a strong sense of possibility in the background. As another songwriter once asked, ain't that America?

Live, Russell will assume all the voices of his ancestors and the fictional characters he places around them, but on the album he benefits from beautiful guest appearances by Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, Dave Van Ronk, Sondre Bratland, Kari Bremnes and, um, Walt Whitman. Wonderful, textured instrumentation is provided by Russell and his longtime guitar partner Andrew Hardin, as well as Knut Reiersrud (who plays virtually every American instrument), Eoin O'Riabhaigh, AnnbjŅrg Lien and others.

Tom Russell is clearly a man who has thought a lot about his work, as is obvious from a recent phone interview with the RFT:

RFT: When did you come up with the idea for this?
Russell: Six or seven years ago, I was pounding out this chorus, "American Primitive Man," which still lingers in the piece. I was thinking more back then of this big, long piece on America, almost an American folk-art piece with sounds, freight-train sounds, Native American. I worked on that for a few years on the side, and then the ancestors started rearing their voices, entering into the thing and taking it over. That became even more interesting. I explored that for a couple years and found out all that I could. Ultimately I met the old guy in the bar in Downpatrick, Ireland, who said there was a Thomas Russell hung in Ireland in 1798, and a poem written about him called "The Man from God Knows Where." That capped it off -- that and my father's death a couple years ago. I was able to finish it and give it a new title. I created this overseer, the man from God knows where, who goes seeking these voices.

Tell me how you envisioned him. When you got the title, he became the narrator?

Well, I didn't get the poem for a long time. It was hard to find. So I went ahead and wrote this long song, "The Man from God Knows Where," and we broke it up and put it throughout the record. The poem itself is really neat. It starts off, "Into our town on a snowy night rode the man from God knows where. None of us bid him stay or go, but we stabled his big brown mare." It's kind of this mysterious guy who rides into a pub one night; then he disappears, and years later they watch him being hanged. I envisioned this guy as being sort of, in that respect, a troubadour who rides into town, whatever era or year it is, and bids some of my ancestors to rise up out of their graves and tell their stories. It's that, and it's also, as somebody pointed out, in the tradition of the bragging song, those old songs like "Hey, I was born a thousand years ago/I'll kill the man who says it isn't so." He's got that in him, too. He rides on freight trains, he talks to Stephen Foster, he conjures up the voice of Walt Whitman, and then we hear the voice. He's sort of the eternal, ethereal master of ceremonies.

I wanted to ask about the Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman bits. It's something that's been throughout your work, where you reference famous people. It's amazing that not only did you reference Walt Whitman, you actually got him on the record.

I thought that was a coup. If anything, the record is worth buying because you have Walt Whitman's voice.

How did you find it?
I heard it about five years ago on a compilation of American poetry that was on Rhino. It only existed like that -- 20 seconds. But I was amazed that it even did exist. I read the notes that said it was recorded by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder. I thought, "Jesus, what a historical document for Americans, and nobody knew about it." So I thought if I could sneak it onto this record and work it into the mix -- like we worked in the Indian chants a little and the carnival sounds -- it would be a great part of the landscape.

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