It's fitting that Tom Russell's new retrospective CD says nothing about greatest hits, instead going with the oblique title The Long Way Around. It's fitting not because the songs weren't hits (though only a couple dented the charts, and then only when recorded by someone else), but because, rather than busting the charts, Russell's taken the slow route to his place of prominence as one of the country's most respected -- and covered -- songwriters.
Riding life's two-lane blacktops instead of the interstates, Russell has absorbed the sights and sounds of a route filled with working stiffs, bums, thugs, coal mines, big skies and prison walls. These he digested and worked into his songs, sometimes as real-life portraits, sometimes fictionalized, but always as something resonant. As a topical songwriter, Russell follows a chain of troubadours that extends back through Woody Guthrie and Charley Patton to the bards of England.
Something of a wandering minstrel himself, Russell was raised near Southern California's San Joaquin Valley, where he absorbed the border-tinged Western swing and hillbilly sounds of Spade Cooley and Merle Travis, later tapping the veins of the rich Bakersfield country music scene led by Merle Haggard. From there he launched his career in the skid row joints of Vancouver, backing strippers, transvestites and freaks, later sojourning as a folkie in Austin and New York City (with periodic stops in Norway) before finally settling in West Texas.
Out of these and countless other pit stops come Russell's no-frills songs, with such no-frills titles as "U.S. Steel," the story of the last day at a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania; "Manzanar," a poignant capsule about the Japanese internment camp in California; and "Big Water," a snapshot of a Mississippi River community ravaged by flood. Like the subject of an Annie Leibovitz portrait, Russell's people have a strength of personality that we can glean after only a few choice descriptives.
Though he never seems to pass judgment, it's clear where Russell's sympathies lie. But as close to the earth as his music may be, he's no protest singer. He even pens a mean love song, as Suzy Bogguss discovered when her version of Russell's "Outbound Plane," a song he co-wrote with Nanci Griffith, cracked the country charts.
His locations may span the continent, but Russell has a special affinity for the West, which is why his songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Guy Clark and other interpretive greats. Russell has cut several cowboy-themed albums over the years, and his best-known ode, "Gallo del Cielo," the story of a prize cock and his handler's struggle to save the family farm, has been recorded by the likes of Joe Ely and Ian Tyson.
Russell isn't the most accomplished guitarist on the planet, though he's competent enough. His music
actually sounds best with just a little help, which bodes well for his Houston audience -- Russell will appear with frequent collaborator Andrew Hardin, whose instrumental skills instill the songs with the musical depth necessary to bring out their best.
-- Bob Burtman
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Tom Russell performs with Andrew Hardin at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 13 and 14, at Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant. Bill Staines opens. Tickets are $10. For info, call 528-8576.
Chris Whitley -- A marvelously instinctual guitarist, blues-infused singer/songwriter Chris Whitley revels in the adrenaline-fed elasticity of the live experience. In much the same way, his latest CD, Terra Incognita, is a stylistic morass, veering between roots-rock classicism and flat-out noise pollution; his performance history has embraced the extremes. In other words, Whitley is maddeningly unpredictable on-stage. He's had his quiet, stripped-down moments, solo appearances that have taken on the intimate air of campfire bull sessions, but an equal number of shows (i.e., the whole of 1995's Din of Ecstasy tour) have left those listeners not scrambling for the exit at a loss to explain the God-awful racket they've heard. By most indications, Whitley's current tour falls somewhere in the middle -- a compromise, of sorts. So while you're not likely to impair your hearing this time around, you might want to bring along a little ear protection just in case things turn ornery. At Rocke-feller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Monday, June 16. Tickets are $15. Sweet Vine opens. 869-TICS. (Hobart Rowland)
Tina and the B-Side Movement -- Given the name Tina and the B-Side Movement, one might expect a band with high-energy loops and zany refrains detailing the latest dance craze. This Minneapolis band does none of that. Instead -- as is made clear on their major-label debut, Salvation -- they cull inspiration from folk, country, blues and pop to create roots rock to drink beer by. Tina Schlieske started taking her act to clubs in 1984, before she was old enough to stand in line and harass the bouncer. Her raspy, yet focused, vocals and determination to succeed eventually garnered the attention of Seymour Stein, the man responsible for signing female artists such as Debbie Harry and k.d. lang. The lyrics, which range from stark zingers to knee-slapping good times, are Schlieske's responsibility, while the music comes from her, drummer Bill Oehrlein and guitarist Jeremy Plumb, who complete a sound that must be heard live to be truly appreciated. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 18. Tickets are $4. Cresta opens. 869-COOL. (Carrie Bell