It was during another life when I lived in another place and, although some might debate the point, I carried a lot more baggage. Walls were packed solid with books and vinyl, with new arrivals demanding space of their own almost daily. Friends would come over and, kicked back on the floor with a jug, we’d listen to the new stuff ’till dawn.
One day the mailman dropped off a small package from Stan Taggart of "Pete’s Roc n Rye Saloon" up in Evanston, Wyo. In those days, before the Internet, Stan was "the source." We would get that border-crossing feeling and make pilgrimages to sit at his bar and absorb the music, literature, and history that, whether we knew it or not at the time, held validity to our lives.
Things haven’t changed much since then. We still make trips to that inner sanctum and the packages from Wyoming, some of the most culturally- and historically-profound documents and recordings of our time, continue to smirk at me when I open the mailbox.
But back to that day when I first encountered Tom Russell. The package from Stan contained a recently-dubbed cassette of "Tulare Dust: A songwriter’s tribute to Merle Haggard." I was off and running.
Featuring many familiar song-slingin’ roots musicians of the day, each performing a different Hag tune, the record was an epiphany back then and maybe even more so today. In fact, it may well have jump-started the entire Americana genre but that’s a story for another time.
Being already hip to the collective art of Iris Dement, Dwight Yoakam, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Rosalie Flores, Steve Young, Marshall Crenshaw, Lucinda Williams, Billie Joe Shaver, Katie Moffatt, John Doe, and Dave Alvin, upon first listening, the record had a comfort zone not much larger than the San Juaquin Valley itself, where much of the expansive song-narratives play out.
But who was this Tom Russell character who put the record together and kicked it off with a spot-on Haggard medley of "Tulare Dust" and "They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down?"
Well, initial research into that question exposed Russell’s longtime camaraderie with the beats and the folk scene and western lore of various stripes including the grittier side of country music. He not only spoke fluent Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Ian Tyson, Dave Van Ronk, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, but had spent time with and channeled the inner vibe of most of them.
But it was the manner in which each of his often gut-wrenchingly poignant compositions drew you in, took you for a ride to where you’d never wandered before, that spoke to his incredible talent. You could smell the electricity in the air as much as the saddle blankets and the inviting decadence of Juarez as it used to be before the cartels turned it into a war zone.
Sometime later, Tom would show up in Park City as part of a live-music triptych with Iris Dement and Dave Alvin. It was one of Randy Barton’s productions of the time and, as the evening wore down, we caught Tom’s gig up at the Star Bar. He wowed us, to be sure, and, once we met him, his post-show banter may have been even more riveting.
Later on, he would show up for two separate Heber Valley Cowboy Poetry Gatherings, the first with his legendary mentor and songwriting sidekick Ian Tyson. This was after his album "Hotwalker" had knocked us all for a literary loop. We’d been shanghaied with little hope of jumping ship.
Our next port-of-call turned out to be down New Mexico way at the Santa Fe Brewery. Featuring Thad Beckman, his current lead guitar and vocal sidekick, that show had us clasping ourselves in irons. We were onboard the good ship Russell for the duration.
This past weekend, an armada of Russell faithful navigated their way into the Heber Valley from all over the map to catch either one or both of his shows at what they’re now calling the Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Of course, some of us only had to mosey down the road a piece to spend time in his storytelling and songwriting aura.
He took us to some of his usual haunts, from the smoky confines of the Basilica of our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City to the whorehouse stairs in Durango (actually he substituted Heber City during this rendition). We also stopped at the Colorado diner where he and waitress Katie warmed to each other ‘neath a worn out Navajo Rug.
We rode with Blackjack Pershing after Pancho Villa and met the Walla Walla convict with a Blue Wing tattooed on his shoulder. We glimpsed the Mexican dead on a power line from "Stealing Electricity" and traveled with the fighting rooster "Gallo del Cielo," with his "one eye rollin’ crazy in his head." I wouldn’t doubt that Cormac McCarthy owns the complete Tom Russell catalog.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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