Picking Away at History

When a friend first heard the song "Mineral Wells," Tom Russell's tale about a faded Hollywood starlet and an equally washed-out film critic who seek the fountain of youth in West Texas, he packed his wife into the SUV and headed out to the dusty plains and that place called the Crazy Water Hotel. He wasn't looking for that mythical spring; he simply had to see the hotel and pass through its space and touch the walls for himself.

What he found was a hotel full of senior citizens. The Crazy Water, once famous for serving mineral water said to cure all ailments, has been reduced to a retirement home, the victim of a dry well in the 1950s and an army base that closed in the 1970s. A recent Houston Chronicle article said the owner would give the Crazy Water away for free to anyone who would invest nearly $900,000 to update the sprinkler system and keep it open for the seniors.

This is certainly not the Crazy Water Hotel that dances in the protagonists' heads in Russell's "Mineral Water." In the song, the aging actress tells her portly, fawning former film critic about a grand hotel where she once met Errol Flynn and they danced down the streets in "the moonlight of old Mineral Wells." She convinces the critic to travel with her to Mineral Wells so they can rejuvenate themselves in its waters -- only to find the hotel boarded up and "the fountain of youth dried up." The couple then finds comfort in another kind of water, firewater, as they drown their sorrows in vodka from a Styrofoam cup. "Drunk but still dreaming," Russell writes, "they waltzed down the street in the moonlight of old Mineral Wells."

This is vintage Tom Russell, a songwriter known for creating stories and characters so real you feel as if you know them -- or that you want to know them. His imagery, empathy and intelligence clearly place him next to the great Texas songwriters, which is ironic considering he grew up in California. But Russell lived in Austin in the mid-'70s and now resides in El Paso.

"It was a completely different Austin," he recalls. "It was an incredible time for music. The music was unpretentious, progressive country. It's like what everyone says Nashville is, but isn't -- kids and dogs and the whole bit. Now it's corporate South by Southwest."

When Russell comes to town this weekend, he'll perform a number of new tunes, some co-written with Dave Alvin, that will appear on his next album, which, says Russell, won't be overly conceptual. There'll be some border songs (inspired by living in El Paso) and some personal songs (the result of "retooling the relationship with my girlfriend").

"A lot of the songs are centered on the border," Russell says. "I'm trying to open up that trapdoor of history. All of civilization did not come across the ocean. Much of American history came across the border, probably right across my property. It's still the frontier, and I feel comfortable on the edge."

History, says Russell, is important because it leads us back to who we are. Russell's 1999 album, The Man from God Knows Where (Hightone), tells the story of his Irish and Norwegian ancestors in a 26-track song cycle. Russell invokes his ancestral spirits, in both story and song, by mixing Irish ballads, Norwegian fiddle tunes, cowboy ballads and the actual voice of Walt Whitman reading his poetry (lifted from an 1890 wax cylinder). And just to emphasize that Man isn't a nostalgic look at American history, Russell adds a song, "The Outcast," on which Dave Van Ronk sings, "Your promised land was settled by bastards, drunks and thieves."

This writer is an unabashed Tom Russell fan and, as such, thought The Man from God Knows Where was one of the two best albums of last year. The critics loved it. Of course, it hasn't sold diddly. But that doesn't piss off Russell. He has a dead-on analysis of the music business.

"You look at your albums like children," he says. "Some of them get breaks; others don't. I'm heartened when I opened up my e-mails, and in one week, I got e-mails from Jesse Winchester, Mickey Newbury and Finbar Furey, telling me how much they liked the album. This is a year after the album has been out. I also got an e-mail from [Kronos Quartet violinist] David Harrington, who walked into a record store, saw the cover, thought it looked interesting. He absorbed it over a year and found out through my Web site who I was. He sent me this stack of albums he'd done, and said maybe we could get together.

"So the album continues to seep through the cracks," Russell says. "The bottom line is I'm glad I got to make the album. It was expensive to make. Had we been able to tour with a troupe, which really wasn't feasible, it would have found a bigger audience. And had we gotten more NPR attention, it might have found a bigger audience. Despite that, it's making some headway. It was the No. 1 folk record, but it didn't even rise in the Americana charts. The nature of the beast is the little stations that do play folk played the hell out of the record. But it's a marginal audience."

Marginalized or not, every Tom Russell fan, it seems, has his favorite song or album. Yours truly's is Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard, which Russell and Alvin co-produced and on which Russell sings the Dust Bowl medley "Tulare Dust/They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down."

It happens to be Russell's own favorite.

"Dave was recording "King of California' at the time, and I told him the song sounded like Merle," recalls Russell. "We talked about what an influence Hag was on us, and that led into the idea of a tribute. Everybody we talked to had a favorite Haggard song. The album happened organically, and the songs are so heartfelt."

As a result, Tulare Dust stands up as a record, not as a cartoonish tribute made for a quick buck. The renditions are acoustic, bare-bones, done out of love and respect for Merle Haggard. Russell mentions playing with Haggard at the Fillmore West after the record came out. The country legend told Russell how much more he liked the Tulare tribute than the insipid Nashville version.

There's also a story that Russell heard from Iris Dement about how Haggard stopped his tour bus in the middle of the desert, shut off the motor and the lights, and concentrated on listening to "They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down" from the tribute album. He told Dement afterward, "I forgot that I recorded that song."

"When you hear things like that, you forget all the bad things, all the struggling, all the odious parts of the music business," says Russell. "The good records will stand. People will keep coming back to them. At the root is good writing, important American writing. That's a good reason for young people to discover [Johnny] Cash and Haggard."

Russell leaves one important name off that short list: his own. One day a young generation of songwriters will speak of him with the same awe and respect.

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Aaron Howard