Most of the outstanding Texas songwriters are regional poets. Although they don't write poems per se, they use a poetic style that accommodates the average person. Their songs illuminate the details of everyday life. Few, if any, Texas songwriters have magnified the complexities of El Paso with the sensitivity that Tom Russell demonstrates on Borderland. His understanding is even more impressive given the fact that Russell has been staying there only a few short years.
Since buying an adobe house outside El Paso in 1997, Russell has soaked up the essence of the place. His representation is a collection of human events and fragments that invoke the borderland sensibility with flair and a keen eye for detail. He depicts doomed relationships -- those uneasy, poorly defended borders between men and women -- and he invokes the spirit of Orson Welles on the noirish "Touch of Evil." Russell casts his eye on the easy money of cocaine running through the unadorned scrub brush on "Hills of Old Juarez." "When Sinatra Played Juarez," on the other hand, recalls the bygone days when the city was an exotic Anglo playground on par with today's Cancun. Russell draws images of la frontera as a place where relationships drift apart until they dribble out like the eponymous river in "Down the Rio Grande," co-written by Dave Alvin. Later he invokes a sense of living at the edge of the great American desert in "The Santa Fe at Midnight."
Russell's ability to bring to light the meaning of El Paso/Juarez is a rare gift, shared by few outsiders. Most non-native borderlanders see El Paso as Texas's western armpit, a place bereft of what we smugly think of as civilization. The late El Paso-bred artist/writer/ humorist Jose Antonio Burciaga shared Russell's ability to see a sumptuous tapestry where others saw a transparent sheet.
"Back home in Texas," Burciaga once wrote, "I remember being told more than once by New Yorkers stationed at Fort Bliss that El Paso was a cultural desert. We had none, they told us. It took my departure from that bicultural oasis to realize that those New Yorkers were accustomed to buying their 'culture' at a Broadway theater or at the Madison Square Garden. El Paso's culture was alien to them. Culture is not a spectator sport that can be bought. It has to be lived." Russell, who with "Gallo del Cielo" examined cockfighting as a cultural phenomenon rather than a case of animal cruelty, not only agrees but has plainly acted on Burciaga's advice.
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