Interview Outtakes: Tom Russell, Playing at Off Broadway on Friday, Turner Hall on Saturday

Oct 16, 2009 at 1:00 pm

This week in the RFT, freelance writer Roy Kasten interviewed Tom Russell about his creative process, especially for the new album Blood and Candle Smoke, which prominently features the sounds of Calexico, and some of his strongest compositions after over 30 years of songwriting. He'll be in the St. Louis area this weekend, with a show at Off Broadway Friday night and at Turner Hall in Mount Olive, Illinois on Saturday. Outtakes from the interview below.

Roy Kasten: Tell me about the recording process for the album.

Tom Russell: With the combination of not only Calexico, but some of the other Tucson musicians, Nick Luca, and then Winston Watson, a brilliant drummer, who played with Dylan on the Unplugged record and Love and Theft, he brought a lot to the record, but also Barry Walsh, the pianist. The piano is very central to the record. Barry played with Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings. He brought a classical sound; a lot of those intros were made up by Barry Walsh. And Gretchen Peters, his girlfriend sang some of the harmonies. Once the songs were done, we brought in Jacob Valenzuela from Calexico to play trumpet over the top of everything because everything he played was pretty brilliant, so we just let him go. That was kind of the mix. I would say experimental sonically but not in the writing of the songs. I sat down with these guys with my guitar and just played them, and we saw where it went.

On the song "Santa Ana Wind," you have this image toward the end, picturing the troubadours traveling from town to town, and the line, "burning down the lies of Western history." You're interested in history, and distinguishing between myth and the truth that's in myth.

A lot of people ask me about lines on this record. In another song, "Criminology," I use an e.e. cummings line, and then the Tonton Macoute line, that really comes from Graham Greene writing about Haiti, but I put it in an African song. People approach it as if you chart this stuff out. But you don't. On an emotional level, these things fly through your head as you're strumming the song and concocting the work of art. You learn not to weed them out, not to put a filter on them. You know where they came from but you don't know why they're suddenly entering the song. Mostly I've gotten away from the storyteller writing from history, the way I used to write cowboy ballads or true songs, into putting in the elbow grease and letting the inspiration flow, and accepting what comes. The songs weren't so much dreamt up scientifically, though I reference history and this and that. When lines like that come in, I just let it go.

So if you're reading Graham Greene, you don't have your notebook next to you.

No. But I'll tell you what: Good lines stick with me. I am rereading Graham Greene. A lot of stuff comes to the surface like old bullets from bullet wounds. Twenty years after you got shot the bullet comes to the surface. Reading Greene, or being in Africa, being down in Mexico City, I may not have written anything down. But 8 or 10 or 30 years later, images start coming to the surface based on experiences. I was tremendously affected by Graham Greene, especially The Heart of the Matter, which takes place in West Africa. That's probably my favorite novel. There's a line in there, 20 years later the guy is back in London, and that image of the red clay roads at sundown, when he's drinking a pink gin in his club, for a minute it takes him back to Africa at the best time of the day. And that stuck with me and came to me in the song "East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam."

Do you remember where you were when you wrote "The Most Dangerous Woman in America"?

Yeah. Ed Becker, who lives out your way, and is the funeral director in Mount Olive, which is a historic American town, a dying sort of coal mining town, gave me a book, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. He wanted to do a benefit CD to help clean up the graveyard there where her monument grave is. I didn't read the book, but I loved the title. I don't remember when I wrote it, but I wrote it here in El Paso. I think it's influenced by Springsteen's Nebraska. It's got that spare, cinematic thing. The junkie just got out of prison, and he's driving across the frozen Midwest. That landscape always impresses me, the farms in winter. In the song, he's driving back to Mount Olive. It's a core American town in a lot of ways. There's a bar there called Pee Wee's House of Knowledge; they closed it about five years ago. That's in the song.

What do you think is the biggest misconception or mistake of young songwriters?

(Laughs.) I could go on and on. At South By Southwest, I wasn't there, but Little Steven got up and made this speech. People asked me if I wrote it for him. He said: You people come from all over the world, and you're all trying to network your way to fame. None of you young songwriters are doing your homework. You're not learning other people's songs, staying home and learning the craft. You're not playing bars for 10 or 15 years, paying your dues. And that's true. When Dylan came to New York, and he's the supreme example, none of these people will top that catalogue, he knew a thousand songs. He could steal from Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and he could play blues. He came through that scene very fast because of the homework he'd done. You could say genius, but he did a lot of hard work. We've made it very hard for young songwriters, with these stupid bullshit conferences, South By Southwest, Folk Alliance, Songwriter Magazine. There's this idea that there are gimmicks, tools, networking that can help you. But they haven't helped anybody. They've limited people. The Beatles had four tracks and a guitar. All this science, this introspective look at songwriting, it's put hobbles on songwriters. It was a heavy scene that Dylan and Cohen went through. Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, those guys, were in the Navy and Marines, and had been exposed to hard drugs. By the time they hit the scene they were adults, they had character. You don't run into that type of kid anymore.

Are you coming to St. Louis with just your guitar?

No, I've got a back up guitarist, Thad Beckman. He's got about six records out, great acoustic guitar player, and he's a got a book on country blues guitar. He's been with me about six months. That's the way I like to do it, just one back up guitar. I don't need a band at this point.