Tom Russell’s ‘Mesabi’ tracklisting, song meanings announced
aaamusic | On 27, Jul 2011
Tom Russell ‘Mesabi’
Proper Records, released September 12, 2011
Tom joined by Calexico, Lucinda Williams and
Van Dyke Parks on his cinematic new album.
The Mesabi iron range juts into Minnesota, a desolate deposit of minerals and the birthplace of Bob Dylan. American composer and storyteller Tom Russell says that Bob Dylan inspired him to become an artist, and his new ‘Mesabi’ pays moving tribute with compelling tales that connect the iron range to the border town of Juarez, Mexico and the myth of Hollywood celebrity with cinematic, global revelry. ‘Mesabi,’ out Sept 12 on Proper Records, is a vast, interwoven collection of tales set to twangy rock, country and Mexican folk and features Calexico, Van Dyke Parks and Lucinda Williams.
Co-produced by Russell and keyboardist Barry Walsh, and recorded in several different studios in Tucson, Texas, Nashville and Los Angeles, ‘Mesabi’ is the 26th album from an artist whose songs have been recorded by such icons as Johnny Cash, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, among others.
‘Mesabi’ is thematically ambitious, drawing inspiration from American icons like Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and the perilous town of Juarez, Mexico, close to where Tom lives. Says Tom, “The puzzle is that [Juarez is] the most dangerous city in the world and El Paso, just over the bridge, is the safest city in the United States.”
Along with the release of ‘Mesabi,’ 2011 has much in store for Tom. Filmmaker Monte Hellman (‘Two-Lane Blacktop’) demanded that Tom’s new songs be included in his new film ‘Road To Nowhere;’ a book of 60 of Tom’s paintings will be released this fall on Bang Tail Press; a documentary about Tom’s life, ‘Don’t Look Down,’ will be released soon; and he will be touring.
Preview ‘Mesabi’ here: http://vimeo.com/24350407
Pictures available to download here: http://shorefire.com/clients/trussell
‘MESABI’ TRACK LISTING:
1. Mesabi, 2. When the Legends Die, 3. Farewell Never Never Land, 4. The Lonesome Death Of Ukulele Ike, 5. Sterling Hayden, 6. Furious Love (For Liz)
7. A Land Called “Way Out There”, 8. Roll The Credits, Johnny, 9. Heart Within A Heart, 10. And God Created Border Towns, 11. Goodnight, Juarez, 12. Jai Alai
13. Love Abides.
Bonus Tracks: – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, The Road To Nowhere
Mesabi Song Stories
1. Mesabi: Bob Dylan came from the Mesabi Iron Range country of Northern Minnesota. As a kid, Dylan listened to Howlin Wolf on Mexican border radio. Tom grew up listening to Mexican music in L.A….then discovered Dylan. A song about songwriters and dreamers.
2. When the Legend’s Die: The dangers of getting too close to your heroes. The kid in the room listening to Dylan, grows up to realize he has to write his own song.
3. Farewell Never Never Land: Bobby Driscoll, the voice of Disney’s Peter Pan, ends up dead in a vacant lot in NYC. Tom remembers talking to him in Topanga Canyon. The end of the dream.
4. The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike: Cliff Edwards, AKA “Ukulele Ike,” was the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket. He tells his story. Tongue in cheek.
5. Sterling Hayden: Great gangster actor from the 1940’s to the 70’s. Finked on people during the McCarthy era, and never got over it.
6. Furious Seasons (For Liz): Liz Taylor lived with her first husband, Nicky Hilton, in a penthouse in El Paso, overlooking Juarez. Links the 50’s movie scene with the later songs about the Mexican border and Juarez.
7. A Land Called Way Out There: Lament for the death of James Dean, on a farm road outside of Paso Robles California. Passing of an era. Recorded with Calexico.
8. Roll the Credits: The ending for our little movie sequence. Also used in the new Monte Hellman movie: The Road to Nowhere, for which Tom wrote the music.
9. Heart Within a Heart: time for something lighter to cleanse the palette, and change the mood. A gospel take on digging deeper during hard times. Dylan’s gospel backup singer Regina McCrary appears here with her sister Ann. Van Dyke Parks on piano. Recorded at Jack Johnson’s studio in L.A.
10. And God Created Bordertowns: co-written with Augie Meyers. Transition to the border and the current drug war. 8000 people killed in Juarez during the last three years. Tom lives within walking distance of Juarez.
11. Goodnight Juarez: Recorded with Calexico and Joel Guzman. A lament for Juarez and its devastating drug war.
12. Jai Alai: “The fastest game on earth,” a Basque ball game which was once big on the border during the 1950’s and 60’s. Still exists in Florida. The passing of border culture.
13. Love Abides: Written years ago for Tom’s folk opera “The Man From God Knows Where,” reprised here as a healing song to end the record. Solo. Do we know who we are?…stranded on a mountain top, trying to catch a falling star.” Still reaching for the dream.
14. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall: bonus track. Bob Dylan’s early anthem, featuring Lucinda Williams and Calexico. Tom heard Dylan sing it in L.A. in the early sixties. Talked to Dylan behind the Santa Monica Civic. Sort of a bookend to the first song on this record.
15. The Road to Nowhere: bonus track. The title song to the new Monte Hellman movie: The Road to Nowhere. Tom wrote the music for the film.
Tom Russell is a master storyteller and Mesabi, his new release for Proper Records, corrals some of the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s most compelling tales to date. A thread runs through its songs, a zigzagging but determinedly solid line that connects the perilous bordertown of Juarez, Mexico to the real and faux glitz of L.A. and the bleak iron range of Minnesota—the Mesabi of the album’s title. The broad landscapes created by Tom Russell for Mesabi are inhabited by characters we all know—Bob Dylan, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor—and some we may not: the now-obscure, once well-known singer Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, the tragic Disney child star Jimmy Driscoll and the character actor Sterling Hayden. It’s a logical progression from Russell’s last album, 2009’s Blood and Candle Smoke, yet it’s like no other album Russell has made in his nearly four decades as a recording artist.
Co-produced by Russell and keyboardist Barry Walsh, and recorded in several different studios in Tucson, Texas, Nashville and Los Angeles, Mesabi is the 26th album from an artist whose songs have been recorded by such icons as Johnny Cash, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, among others. No less than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary poet, has said that he shares “a great affinity with Tom Russell’s songs, for he is writing out of the wounded heart of America.”
For Mesabi, Russell invited along several prominent friends to assist him in bringing to fruition his newest compositions, among them Lucinda Williams, Van Dyke Parks, Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Meyers and Calexico, the band with which Russell previously collaborated on Blood and Candle Smoke. The result is a collection that may be Russell’s most cinematic and global to date, a work that instantly grips the listener and holds on as its vivid scenarios unfold from tune to tune. The consummate renegade, Tom Russell makes the music he wants to make, without intervention, and he does so without a care for trends and expectations.
“My career seems to have gone in the opposite direction from a lot of people whose notoriety came over their first half dozen records,” says Russell. “Mine didn’t. My career built very slowly, and then I moved to El Paso in ’97, further outside than anybody could imagine. By not plugging into the machine, the records I’ve made in the past 10 years have been my strongest and most outside records, especially the past two. It seems that the older I get, the more I’ve been able to keep on the outside.”
Mesabi—whose cover art was painted by Russell—begins with the title track, Russell’s tribute to one of his muses, Mr. Dylan. Dylan, Russell notes, came up listening to the likes of bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf on Mexican radio stations, which Russell also heard while growing up in L.A.—an inspiration to him before he heard Bob Dylan. “I was up there once [near Dylan’s northern Minnesota birthplace] and I couldn’t believe he came out of that desolate country,” says Russell. “I was amazed. That song is about me listening to Dylan in L.A. and trying to become a better songwriter. And I’m still at it.”
The next track, “When the Legends Die,” begins with the lines “I was that kid in a room, with heroes and legends tacked up over my head/Fullbacks and folksingers; matadors, troubadours and hard-running thoroughbreds.” The song, Russell explains, is about “that kid one day realizing you’ve got to do it on your own. You can’t dissolve into hero worship.” The track features a very living legend, Van Dyke Parks, one of America’s most unique songwriters and musicians. “I met him at the Edmonton Folk Festival last year,” says Russell, “and he blew me away. He went online and found Blood and Candle Smoke and he told me how much he liked it. We became friends and he played this very different keyboard approach, almost a carnival player piano, Americana approach.”
Appropriately, the next five songs form a subset, each confronting the great myth of Hollywood celebrity by focusing on a different real-life personality, some, as the Kinks once put it, “that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of.” Bobby Driscoll, the subject of “Farewell Never Never Land,” is very likely one who falls into the latter category. A major Disney star, he was the voice of Peter Pan, a colossal success early in life featured in many hit films of the ’40s and ’50s. By the time he reached his twenties Driscoll’s career had disappeared and he sank into drug addiction and poverty. His body was discovered in a New York City tenement building in 1968 at the age of 31. Then there’s “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike,” another big name, the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket. He too came to an unfortunate demise.
“Bobby Driscoll was a guy we all grew up with every Sunday, singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’” says Russell. “Then we find out that Cliff Edwards, Ukulele Ike, who was the voice of Dumbo and other things, was a jazz ukulele player, and he died destitute in a rest home and was put in an unmarked grave. I was just fascinated.”
“Sterling Hayden” takes its name from the actor whose credits ran the gamut from Johnny Guitar and The Asphalt Jungle to Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather. An admitted Communist, he was shunned by Hollywood after cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Russell encapsulates Hayden’s life story into a four-minute vignette, concluding, “So here’s to all the tough guy actors and the false gods who made ’em/And wherever he sails tonight on the Seven Seas may the Lord sail with Sterling Hayden.”
“Furious Seasons (For Liz)” was the last song written for Mesabi, following the recent death of screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor. It’s also the shortest, at just over a minute and a half. “I kept running into her myth and life,” says Russell. “I married a Swiss lady and we have a place in Switzerland, part-time. And near her parents’ place in the Alps, Liz Taylor had a chalet right down the street. Then I found out she lived for a short while in a penthouse in El Paso, with her first husband, Nicky Hilton. That overlooks Juarez, Mexico, and I thought, with all this stuff coming together, I’d write a quick one-minute waltz about Liz looking out on Juarez. In a strange way that arcs the album’s Hollywood material with the border material.”
“A Land Called Way Out There,” recorded with Calexico, is a “lament for the death of James Dean,” says Russell, and is followed by “Roll the Credits,” one of two tracks from the album used in a new film, The Road to Nowhere, directed by Monte Hellman. One of three songs featuring background vocals by Gretchen Peters, its words capture the escapism of the Hollywood world, a world that doesn’t often spill over into our daily lives: “Roll the credits, Johnny, you up there in the projection booth/Dreamtime is over now, time to put our shoes on and hit the street/But wasn’t it beautiful? Didn’t we forget about the sad times for a while? The good guys won, the bad guys tasted bitterness and defeat.”
“Heart Within a Heart,” the second track featuring Van Dyke Parks, is, says Russell, “in there as a mid-album palette cleanser. It’s very simple: digging deeper when you’re down. It’s got a pretty strong chorus and the McCrary sisters, Regina and Ann, from Dylan’s gospel days. I don’t want every song to be heavy or thematic. I think you have to have a point that lets the pressure off. It’s a hopeful song.”
The next tune, “And God Created Bordertowns,” was co-written with Augie Meyers, best known for his keyboard work with the late Doug Sahm. “It was a rap at first, and I liked Augie’s piano thing,” says Russell. “It sounds like it was done in a Juarez bar. It has Jacob Valenzuela from Calexico on trumpet. It’s kind of stating the facts. They’re selling us the drugs, we’re giving them the guns and 30,000 people have died. The puzzle is it’s the most dangerous city in the world and El Paso, just over the bridge, is the safest city in the United States.” Also featuring Calexico, along with accordionist Joel Guzman, “Goodnight Juarez,” is another lament: “Juarez I used to paint the town,” sings Russell, “Now you’ve gone and turned it upside down/Into a dark and bloody battleground/Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight.”
Mesabi continues with “Jai Alai,” about the sport, once popular below the border, described as “the fastest game on Earth.” It features Jacob Mossman on backing vocals, flamenco guitars, palmas and jaleos, Eric Boseman on cajon and percussion and Mike Minarjez on bass. Following is “Love Abides,” a reprise of the song that originally concluded Russell’s 1999 album The Man From God Knows Where. “My wife urged me to do it,” says Russell about the latter. “I demoed it in Tucson with a funky old guitar. It’s a positive song and remains relevant today.”
Two bonus tracks wrap up Mesabi. The first is Russell’s single-take interpretation of one of Dylan’s most poignant songs ever, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the title track from the previously mentioned Hellman film. Both feature Calexico, and the Dylan cover also spotlights Lucinda Williams. “Years ago I toured with her,” says Russell. “She went on to well-deserved fame but we always kept in touch. I thought of Lucinda’s perfectly edgy voice. She loves Dylan. She was really into it and did a great job.”
As lyrically potent as Mesabi is, props must also be given to the high level of musicality on the album. In addition to the folks from Calexico and the various guests, Russell and producer Walsh utilized several talented players to bring life to the songs. Walsh himself plays piano and other keyboards on several tracks, and the ace guitarists Will Kimbrough and Thad Beckman also lend their vision. Viktor Krauss and Bob Glaub (bass), John Gardner and Don Heffington (drums), David Henry (percussion, mandolin and cello), engineer Craig Schumacher (trumpet and percussion), Fats Kaplin (ukulele, oud, viola and accordion), Tony Rosano (euphonium), Marco Rosano (tenor saxophone) and Chris Schultz, who provides ambient guitar on the Dylan cover, flesh out the diverse arrangements.
“In this day and age it’s become harder and harder to get people, especially young people, to listen to a full album,” says Russell, “and especially one with 15 songs. People now are used to downloading one song at a time. But when somebody does listen, you have a breakthrough. This is a long album, a big album,” he says, “but hopefully the writing carries it through.”
That would be something of an understatement. Songwriting and performance at the level of Mesabi is a rarity today, and when Russell notes that the size of his overall audience has doubled over the past five years, he’s not so much boasting as affirming that there is still a huge hunger for the kind of quality, the kind of thoughtfulness and substance, that he can be counted upon to deliver each time out.
Even as he prepares to tour behind Mesabi, Russell is also looking forward to the release this fall of a new Eric Temple-directed documentary about his life and work, Don’t Look Down (its title a takeoff on the Dylan doc Don’t Look Back), described as the definitive history of Tom Russell, and to Blue Horse/Red Desert, a collection of Russell’s art. And as if he’s not already prolific enough, he’s already thinking beyond this current flurry of activity to what the studio might offer him the next time he’s ready. “I think I have quite a few records left,” he says. We should all hope so—that can only be a win-win all around.