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Tucson Weekly Of Six Strings And Six-Guns

Folk artist Tom Russell sings his family saga.

By Gregory McNamee

JUNE 21, 1999:  TRACING FAMILY HISTORY, genealogists will tell you, is an inexact science. It's not so much for lack of data: the world is afloat, after all, in birth and death certificates, deeds, snapshots, home movies. The challenge in uncovering one's roots is more often to separate fact from folklore, to cut through family politics, whitewashing (see Robert Altman's new film Cookie's Fortune for a case in point) and wishful thinking to find out what skeletons really lurk in Grandpa's closet.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell takes on his family history--folklore, skeletons and all--in his latest album, The Man from God Knows Where (Hightone Records). Its title, he says, comes from a chance meeting in a pub in Downpatrick, Ireland, where an old man asked Russell if he were the namesake of a former local resident. When Russell said yes, the old man said, "They hung your namesake, Thomas Russell, right across the road in 1798, during the United Irish Rebellion. There's a poem about him called 'The Man from God Knows Where.' "

As Russell relates in the liner notes, he promptly bought the old man a pint and stole the title of the poem.

That title came far easier than did the rest of the folk- and country-tinged album, which Russell says took him more than eight years to write: "It started as a rambling American portrait; a kind of sprawling account of our history from the immigrants to the Old West and on down to now. But then the songs seemed always to come back to my ancestors, my people, whose stories I was interested in telling. It's still a complete American story, I think, even if it is pretty personal."

Russell delivers that story in the form of what might be called a folk opera--Russell calls it "a mix of cowboy music and Broadway"--sung by many voices. On the disc, those voices include Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, Sondre Bratland, Kari Bremnes and Dave Van Ronk, the last a man who, nearly 40 years ago, taught young Bob Dylan a thing or two about folk music. (Walt Whitman makes an appearance, too, thanks to a scratchy old Victrola recording that Russell unearthed in his travels.)

The characters in The Man from God Knows Where are escapees from Ireland and Scandinavia, uprooted from their native countries and cast away onto a distinctly unfriendly shore, where they pine for the lands that made them refugees while carving out a patch of turf for themselves.

"When I got the idea for the family story," Russell says, "I thought my label, Hightone Records, might not be too interested. About that time I ran into a Norwegian producer, Erik Hillestad. When I told him about it he told me to come over and record it. So we went to Norway and worked with some wonderful Scandinavian musicians, like Annbjorg Lien, who plays this lovely fiddle music--she plays on the new Chieftains album, too. We recorded the whole thing in about two weeks in this big old farmhouse out in the woods. I kept looking out the window at these fjords and waterfalls, and I think that some of the spirit of the place comes out in the music."

As it turns out, Russell adds, Hightone was interested. The label is distributing the album in North America, while Hillestad's KKV Records is distributing it in the rest of the world, and to evident success--several of the songs are earning heavy airplay in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Russell counts getting Dave Van Ronk to appear on The Man from God Knows Where as a success in itself. While not exactly a recluse, Van Ronk rarely leaves Greenwich Village, his headquarters for more than half a century. "When I was writing the album," Russell says, "I thought I'd try to get Tom Waits or Shane McGowan [formerly of the Pogues] to sing the part"--the part in question being that of a figure who's part salesman, part carnival barker and part voice of conscience, who comments ironically on Indian massacres, swindles, land grabs and other milestones of American history. ("Your promised land," Van Ronk chortles, "was settled by bastards, drunks and thieves"; and inhabited, as Russell adds in a later song, by dreamers who swam across suburban seas of alcohol on the trail of big and elusive dreams.) "Then I met Dave when we were working on Nanci Griffith's Other Voices II album, and I figured I'd ask him. I thought he'd turn me down, but he said yes. He wouldn't come to Norway, so he recorded his part in New York, and we patched it on over there."

Andrew Hardin, a nimble guitarist and longtime collaborator of Russell's, will accompany him at the Tucson show. "We did 30 cities together in April and May," Russell says, "and we're ready for a break after Tucson. But then we're going to try to bring the whole cast over from Norway and Ireland and everywhere else. We'll do that at Wolf Trap, outside Washington, and tape the whole thing for PBS."

The first set, Russell says, will be made up of songs from The Man from God Knows Where. In the second set, he and Hardin will perform some of Russell's standards, among them favorites like "Blue Wing," "Haley's Comet," "Box of Visions" and "Gallo del Cielo."

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