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, Annbjrg 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.

There was a line in "The Man from God Knows Where" that jumped out at me. Near the end, when you say, "I look at you in the crowd, and I see that most of you don't care," what do you mean?

(Laughs) I mean, it's almost like I see this as a stage play -- at least, part of me does. I was raised not only on country and cowboy music but on Broadway musicals like The Music Man. I see these people coming to the front of the stage and singing their songs. The man from God knows where is wrapping up this story, and he suddenly points to the audience. Suddenly they're jerked into the drama. He says, "I see that most of you don't care, either about this or about where you came from. Come lift your glass, reveal your path. It's time for you to get involved." Then it ends with "Love Abides," my attempt to end this dark path on a positive note with a love song. But, again, do we really know who we are? The whole piece ends on a positive note, but with a bit of a question mark. It throws the ball into the listener's lap.

The first line of the song about your dad -- "Howdy boys, my name is Charlie, was born in the Chickasaw County Jail" -- how could you have known that and not become who you are, a songwriter?

(Laughs) Well, he was certainly a character, and it filtered down into myself and into my brother, who's a cowboy. There are a lot of things I could say about him. He was a real outgoing character, with $100 bills in his pocket. His father was the sheriff, and the back cell of the jail was a bedroom, where they had some of their kids. I call him the most famous guy you've never heard of. There's Charlie on the Oscar awards; there's Charlie at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park with Willie Shoemaker; there's Charlie with the Dodgers. There was always somebody famous around, and he loved that, although nobody knew who the hell he was. He wascontinued on next pageRUSSELLcontinued from previous pageWilly Loman and also James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life -- that cross-section there.

Let's talk about the character of the Outcast, the other great overarching character besides the man from God knows where.

He's really the opposite, the devil's advocate.
How did you come up with that?
Again, thinking of it as a musical, and even going back to Shakespeare. I remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis playing a rock version of Othello, and he was Iago. He played from the side of the stage on an upright piano and delivered his lines with his great accent. It was unbelievable. I had that in mind and that just any musical would have this sort of character in it. Les Miserables has the guy who robs people's dead bodies -- that kind of opposite character, and also a carnival barker, sort of the guy who's ready to steal their money when they come to America and step off the boat. The shell-game guy. It also enabled me to put a twisted version of American history into his mouth. This land is racked with hatred and pettiness. It was also founded by people like Thomas Paine, who drank two fifths a day. The Outcast just sort of vomited it all up.

The song "The Outcast" has the line that I think could be one of the big themes of the album, which is that we should love this land for what it is, not for what it ain't. Did you think of it that way?

I think there are a lot of lines in his spiel that I like that sum up certain things. Near the end, when he comes back and says, "Some will live like monarchs, and some will ride the dole/The dead will sleep 'neath monuments, or rot in unmarked holes." Or the line, "Survivors in the suburbs cooking meat upon the grill." I just see lower-class white people flipping hamburgers on a grill. But the love-this-land line: I never was a political person. It always astounds me that everybody assumes politics is important. In this country, especially, we put politicians on our money. We're one of the only countries that does that, exclusively. We have to have the presidents on our money because they were so important, when they weren't really that important. We could put Mickey Mantle on the $5 bill and Elvis Presley on the 100. These people had as much or more influence on American history and culture. So I'm sort of implying that, and a lot of other things. We should love this land for what it is realistically, which is sort of what Woody Guthrie's message was: This land is your land, it's my land, it's not theirs. That kind of message.

Let's talk about dreaming, which seems to be a big issue. Were you at all thinking of the American dream?

In a way. I didn't want to pound that one to death. Europeans, when they hear this record, focus on that. These people, when they came from Norway, especially, they see it in pursuit of the American dream. They always want to know what it is over there. The record tries to address, well, why the hell did they come? Some of it was obvious, like starvation. Some of it was for adventure. Sometimes Norwegians left really good farms just because they wanted a bigger farm in the U.S.

It seems whenever anybody's moving on this record, and they're moving all the time, it's to get something, to find something different or better ...

... that they never really find. The whole American dream, to me, is the constant move west. You reach the Midwest from Brooklyn, say, and, like my father, you leave in 1920 or 1930, because you're going to California, the land of opportunity. Hollywood, LA, all of it. You're going to make a lot more than you could make in Iowa. Then you stand on the edge of a Malibu pier and realize this is it, the end of America, and you're stuck right here in this never-never land where all the roots have been erased. But dreaming is essential. All these people, when they speak or sing, are dreaming. It's a double-edged dream, I think. They're dreaming of home and what they miss, and that community they left behind, the town square and the pub and their relatives. And they're dreaming about the future, either the move west or more land, or what have you, or their kids going off. The central song, "The Dreaming," is really a drinking song. The guy is really confusing in his head drink with women, you know, the temptress. He's hearkening back to a woman he met in Dublin, and how the spider of drink caught hold of him. I kind of envisioned (Russell ancestors) Ambrose Larsen and Jim Cooney or somebody getting together, and their differences in language being erased by drink.

Drinking is tied to dreaming all over on this record.
Yeah, another thing I tried to do was to dig up things about American history that we weren't really taught in school, one of them being the fact I mentioned that a lot of the forefathers of this country were drinkers. The people who came here were people who didn't really want to be told what to do. The philosophical basis of this country was written by maybe a lot of drunks, which is what the Outcast says. It's tied, throughout, because I think there's a history of it that goes back through my family. And drink is a strong theme in Irish music, and it's not a strong theme among Norwegians, but they are very heavy drinkers.

Who's the man on the cover?
(Laughs) The man from God knows where! Big question mark! It fell out of a bunch of photos my sister was giving me. I said, "Who is this guy? Good God! It looks like it's 1870 and he's stepped out of a railway car or something." She didn't know. It said "Council Bluffs, Iowa," on the back. We figure he's probably either Patrick Russell or Ambrose Larsen. I left it at that because he's really the man from God knows where. Who knows who he is? Let's try to find out. We never do, but we go through all the other stories.

Tom Russell performs at Off Broadway on Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1.

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