Over the course of 19 albums, Russell has penned scores of wonderfully eloquent and beguiling tunes.
From country ballads to flat-out rockers to Stax-inspired grooves, Russell has repeatedly shifted artistic gears while still maintaining a sound all his own.
His genre-busting collaborations with such disparate talents as soul shouter Barrence Whitfield and guilty man Dave Alvin (of Blasters fame), have resulted in the kind of comfortingly familiar yet highly combustible works that set the bar for what contemporary American roots music should be in 2004.
And, in case youve never stumbled upon one of Russells small-label efforts, you may have heard artists like Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, k.d. lang, Iris Dement or Suzy Boggus tackling one of his cuts.
I wouldnt say hes broadly known in the Savannah Folk Music Society, says its president Hank Weisman. But weve got 3 or 4 die-hard fans, and they were amazed we were able to book him.
Another die-hard fan is David Letterman, who has invited the singer to perform on The Late Show on more than one occasion, despite Russells relative anonymity to mainstream viewers.
Daves got a big ranch in Montana, and hes really into the cowboy thing, explains Russell in a slow and gravelly drawl. He really likes Nanci Griffith and he loved Warren Zevon, and I guess Im somewhere in between the two.
The cowboy thing, as he puts it, refers to Toms fondness for writing tunes about the American West a hobby that has resulted in more than a few albums.
Ive been concerned that there seems to be very little contemporary Western music being written, he says.
A lot of it has just been recycled Tex Ritter and Marty Robbins stuff. Thats why Im trying to bring my own feel to the genre. Thats the only way it can evolve.
During a break between tours, Russell who plays nearly 200 dates a year with his longtime foil, ace guitarist Andrew Hardin spoke to me by phone.
Connect: Been to Savannah before?
Tom Russell: No, and Ive really been meaning to get down there. Were kind of missing out because were literally flying in that morning and flying out that evening. Its tight, but well be back.
Connect: You stay on the road a lot.
Tom Russell: Well, the crowds keep getting bigger with each record, all over the world, so Im in a good position to be able to write and record only what I want. Being on an aggressive indie label like Hightone, I can explore in any direction.
Connect: Its great they give you that much leeway.
Tom Russell: Well, I got signed back when Dave Alvin and I did that acoustic Merle Haggard tribute called Tulare Dust, which pretty much created the whole Americana radio format, and was their longest #1 Record. Unfortunately, it also spawned the dastardly tribute album phenomenon. Theyre small enough to give me a lot of attention, and weve grown together.
Connect: Whats next for you?
Tom Russell: I have one coming out in February which is a look at the West Coast music, art and poetry scene I grew up in during the 60s. Its partially about Charles Bukowski, who I had a long correspondence with. Theres a book called Tough Company coming out, and theres a guy working on a DVD on me, too. Its sort of a triple whammy.
Connect: I dug your remake of Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack of Hearts on your last CD. Thats a tough one to cover.
Tom Russell: It was hard. Its like a vaudevillian, Shakespearean, cowboy song. Not many people can figure it out... I cant.
Connect: Even Dylan may not have.
Tom Russell: (laughs) Thats what Ian Tyson said. (laughs) I dont like being a curmudgeon, but the window for me as far as being moved by songs was from 63 to 69. The fact that Dylan made Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde in about a year and a half is unreal. Its totally baffling from a songwriting standpoint. People ask me what I listen to today. Well, theres just not a lot of writers that really move me like that.
Connect: Do you use a setlist?
Tom Russell: He certainly doesnt know what Im gonna play. I have an idea of a setlist, but I divert from it.
Connect: You must play well together.
Tom Russell: Hes a top of the line player, and after 21 years on and off, he can follow whatever I do. We travel all over the world, and even though were not famous, were getting by pretty well, and we can do what we want to do.
Tom Russell and Andrew Hardin play The Roundhouse at 1 pm and 4:20 pm, Sunday, October 10th.