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"I discovered Buck Owens and Bob Dylan on the same night on an old wooden tube-driven radio that belonged to my uncle. I thought Buck and Bob were some new form of hillbilly, beat, folk music." — Tom Russell

Before the old keyboard gets too carried away channeling the portly gray dude’s beat-up brain, let me get this out of the way. Tom Russell is coming to Hebertown this week as part of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and I, for one, am champing at the bit!

Ian Tyson is back also, he of the postmodern cowpoke ballads and a stage presence not much larger than the western Canadian prairie. Admittedly, Tyson would be enough by himself but, with the promoters finally nudging Russell into their oftentimes interesting but not always hip musical corral, the stakes have been raised.

Over the years (this is the 14th annual) the Heber bunch has been able to methodically acquire more and more headliners from that wondrous talent pool normally associated with the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering of Elko, Nevada. And the last few years, with Tyson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and now Tom Russell, joining up, let’s just say you no longer have to check your brain at the door.

From the outside, it’s not unlike back when the old Deer Valley Bluegrass Festival shared promoters, and thereby pickers and grinners, with the Telluride Fest. All of a sudden you had the likes of Mark O’Conner, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, a just-beginning Lyle Lovett, and a 14-year-old Alison Krauss wandering about.

Not that they’re going to cut you any deals by putting Tyson and Russell on the same show or anything. No, you got to buy a separate ticket for each. But, hey, who’s complaining? I’m ready to kick down the door this Friday no matter what. Even if I have to do it twice!

Especially if it means I finally get to see Russell perform a complete set. Although I certainly have had that option in the past, my choices at the time, quite exceptional on their own, mind you, led me for the most part elsewhere.

It was one of those Randy Godfrey productions. That in itself should explain it, but let me elaborate. Randy had brought Iris Dement, Dave Alvin, and the aforementioned Tom Russell to Park City one year as part of his Main Street triple-header.

One ticket got you in to all three, which was a good thing if they hadn’t all run at the same time at different venues. It turned hopping around into an art form. You had to make choices and there was no way you wouldn’t beat yourself up afterward. So what I did was catch Dement’s first set, Alvin’s second, and the tail end of Russell.

Imagine, if you will, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers taking on the Damn Yankees down at City Park, while, at the same time, Orson Welles is doing a Q&A following a screening of "Citizen Kane" up at Normile’s joint and Jackson Pollock is busy repainting the Alamo floor. Admittedly, you couldn’t go wrong but you also couldn’t go right. Randy would lick his chops.

But back to Tom Russell. I first caught wind of him on the "Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard" album which Stan Taggart shipped down to me from his digs up in Evanston back during the age of cassettes. It has since been said that, in the production of said LP, Russell and Alvin and Dement not only convinced Haggard that he remained too vital to retire but at the same time, invented the "Americana" music genre.

Did I mention that Tom Russell’s "Hotwalker" is my all-time favorite album. And that includes the works of Miles, Monk, Mose, Dylan, Bird, Diz, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, and a litany of others. You catch my drift?

You could call "Hotwalker" an audio history compilation, I suppose. What with Russell’s spot-on guitar picking and narrative story lines weaving in and out the poems, songs, and musings of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Dave Van Ronk, Edward Abbey, and Woodie Guthrie while wandering the back alleys, hoover camps, and deep canyons of the mind. It’s a journey not to be missed!

Little Jack Horton, a "carney" of the old school and the "hotwalker" of the title, is another of the cultural outsiders to which homage is paid in this brilliant collection. His story of stealing a train with Bukowski and the subsequent newspaper headline, "Train goes to Pacoima by itself!" is easily worth the price of admission. As is his poignant portrayal of the L.A. scene with the "Ash Grove" and "Lighthouse" as I first encountered them.

So it’ll be Tom Russell on the ol’ bunkhouse jukebox hereabouts until it’s time to mosey on down to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering this Friday and catch his act in person. Ol’ Tom has a way of taking you deep within that old "outsider’s" America while propping up today about an inch from your face. And then, right afterwards, it’s Ian Tyson. I imagine I’ll be rather full of myself for a spell.

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.


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