Tom Russell is at home in El Paso, Texas, getting ready for another tour — to the East Coast and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman then across the Midwest and Southwest. You could say he's a Brooklyn cowboy, a restless traveler, an insatiable observer or, after more than 30 years of recording, a purveyor of the songcraft of the masters — starting with Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, and on to Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams. Heavy names, but at his best, as on his latest album, Blood and Candle Smoke, Russell merits the comparisons. He's dedicated to songwriting, to getting the lines right, framing images with poignant and dry wit and finding stories where less sharp eyes would never look. Russell gave B-Sides a view of the state of his art.
B-Sides: At the risk of beginning an interview with abject flattery, I'll say that Blood and Candle Smoke may be your finest record — from the songwriting, to your singing, to the music, which has a force or presence that elevates and deepens the whole.
Tom Russell: You know, the reaction has been pretty stunning worldwide. I think it is my strongest record. I worked on it harder than anything I've worked on before. I worked on the writing four years, at least. And I thought about where I would head sonically over the last couple of years.
When I read that you were working with Calexico, I thought it was a misprint.
Two years ago, if you had put a gun to my head — which a lot of journalists do — and asked me what I was listening to, what young writers, everybody has this insane hope that you're listening to a stunning new writer. But I'd say, "No, I haven't heard anything. I listen to Dylan and Exile on Main Street." But I forced myself to go out and widen my horizons. I read the British music magazines, and it brought me around to recognizing that sonically there's interesting stuff happening. And I re-listened to I'm Not There, the Dylan biopic soundtrack, which had a lot of young diverse bands, like Iron & Wine and Calexico. I thought, "This is cool."
Calexico is known for coming from an improvisational background. Is that how you worked together?
No. I didn't want to do that. I came in there with hard songs. I wanted to record like Dylan did with the Band. I had the songs written, but what I didn't have was the arrangements. Those were a little experimental. When I asked [producer] Craig Schumacher, who really doesn't get enough credit for the Iron & Wine, Calexico and Neko Case sound, I said, "I love the sound of these records, but I don't hear the songs." And he said, "There aren't any. These people come in with a few lyrical ideas, but there aren't any songs the way you come in, like the old-style songwriter." Joey and those guys are great, but they experiment with lyrics. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn't. I didn't want to do that.
I have a theory about two different schools of songwriting: There's the Butch Hancock, where you write and write and eventually come up with a keeper. And there's the Leonard Cohen school, where you revise and revise, and the song is never finished, it's just abandoned. Where do you fall in that spectrum?
What's the Bob Dylan school? The Hank Williams school?
I've probably progressed from the Hancock approach to the Cohen thing of really revising. I think the further you're along — and I don't mean in age, but in your development as a writer — you have to work harder to get stuff that you got easier maybe 30 years ago. But in a lot of ways, my songs got better because I put more elbow grease into it. Your built-in bullshit detector, as Hemingway called it, has to be very accurate. I could write lyrics all day, and most people would say they're great. But I know what's good and what isn't. You can't bullshit yourself.