TOM RUSSELL – Folk Hotel (Proper PRPCD143P)

Folk HotelTom Russell releases a new studio album Folk Hotel on September 8th. Russell has been described as “The greatest living folk-country songwriter” by John Swenson in Rolling Stone. Folk Hotel is a mix of Americana, Tex-Mex, Cowboy, Folk, Blues, Poetry and Elizabethiana (I may have invented the word but have a listen to ‘The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane’). In the video below Tom Russell introduces the album: the songs, his artwork and the guest musicians. This is, of course, what a review would normally do – but in addition Russell plays snippets from this first-rate album of American songs so you can hear them instead of trying to imagine them from the written word.

So a different kind of review. Folk Hotel hits you with a cornucopia of characters. We see pictures of America: a café where the mountain lion walked in one day thirsty for water, taken down by the cops; drunken Maggie; a rancher refusing to leave his old horses; JFK as ‘Handsome Johnny’; the smell of saffron and chorizo coming through cracks in the floor; Motel rooms on the interstate; broken guitar strings and a pocket full of guitar picks because “that’s my trade sir”; Indians on the edge of this society; a ‘princess’ on the road to Santa Fe; piss-smelling beer parlours.

……and then there’s ‘Harlan Clancy’, a man who throws his TV in the river because of the commercials and bad news shows; a man who we then see sympathetically – a common man with Irish heritage, “a penchant for a drink, it don’t get in my way”, five kids, “three of whom still talk to me”; a wife; a man (“I ain’t no racist”) with a workmate with a Spanish/Mexican name “I didn’t ask to see his papers”- with whom he goes for a beer after work in a bar where they drink with a black man named Jimmy Lee More. The song also has a tremendous description of ringing the breakdown service and getting a voice in the Philippines. Russell gives us detail enough to imagine the characters’ lives behind the lyrics. Just as Dickens gave us everyday protagonists in 19th century London, treated as persons not caricatures, Russell’s songs do this for America; not the New-Adam-Frontier-America with John Ford characters who created the nation state but the modern America of the common man.

We also see Europe. The album takes us to Wales, Ireland, the A1, Copenhagen and the Faroe Isles. We meet Dylan Thomas twice. In ‘The Sparrow of Swansea’ he is found in “Brown’s Hotel/ or The Mermaid, The Three Lamps/The Boar’s Head, The Cross House/Back on around to The Worm’s Head Hotel”. The writing is vivid in its detail. Thomas is “raging with whisky /he lived out his poetry/ He did not go gentle into that good night”. We also meet Thomas as one of the residents in ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ after a record 18 shots of whisky and Caitlin’s imagined voice screaming across the ocean from Wales asking, “Is that bastard of a man dead yet?”. In ‘All On A Belfast Morning’ the characters come similarly alive: Spanish Frankie; the young mother advising her children to beware the badgers in the boggy ditch; the buskers being secretly listened to by the superior shop girls; the old men going to the corner bar; the wives at home wondering where the romance went. Later, we meet ‘Jimmy’ Joyce and ‘Billy’ Yeats as part of the Anglo-Irish literary canon in ‘The Day They Dredged The Liffey’.

Dotted amongst the stories are gems of lines, such as the image of reality and anticipation “Let us not confuse the pint with the pouring’” or this, “The road goes on and on and on/Driven by a dream wrapped in a song”.

On the physical CD there are two bonus tracks – a version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, which Russell makes his own, and ‘Scars On His Ankles’ an extended blues about Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose scars were caused by chains from the chain gang.

Russell is a remarkable chronicler of modern America. Just as in a Dickens novel or a poem by Charles Bukowski (with whom Russell corresponded), you catch the minor characters in glimpses – black and white maybe but never a cartoon – while major characters like Harlan Clancy are fully formed, treated compassionately, with respect, seen as they would wish to see themselves – and then some.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

Tom Russell talks about Folk Hotel:

Tom Russell announces a new album, Folk Hotel

Tom Russell

Tom Russell will release a brand-new studio album, Folk Hotel (Proper Records) on September 8th. The physical version showcases thirteen new Russell originals plus, as one of two bonus tracks, Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, a duet with Joe Ely, featuring Joel Guzman on Tex-Mex accordion. Augie Meyers and Eliza Gilkyson also make guest appearances on the album, which was recorded at Congress House studio in Austin, Texas.

A signature Tom Russell collection, the wide-ranging subject matter on Folk Hotel includes songs and stories about New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a journey up the road from El Paso to Santa Fe, a cowboy song about Ian Tyson refusing to “leave his old horses”, a song for Dylan Thomas – melting into a James Joycean landscape about day in the life of Belfast, a song about Tom meeting J.F.K., another song using only 16th century slang and more.

Described as “the renaissance man of Americana: novelist, criminologist, artist, and singer-songwriter ” by The Guardian, Tom Russell’s long and influential career has many highlights, including Mojo Magazine’s Folk Album of the Year 2015, The Rose Of Roscrae, his third in a series of acclaimed folk operas, following The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and Hotwalker (2005), live album Aztec Jazz (2013), recorded in Norway with world-renowned 32 piece Norwegian Wind Ensemble, Mesabi (2011) and Blood and Candle Smoke (2009). In the 1990s, Russell and Dave Alvin were hailed as the architects of what came to be known as “Americana” music after their Merle Haggard tribute, Tulare Dust, initiated the Americana charts in the U.S. and remained number one for a year.

Russell’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, Nanci Griffith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, and many others. Alongside his thirty-five acclaimed albums, Russell has also composed movie scores, including songs for the Monte Hellman movie The Road To Nowhere and published five books, most recently 120 Songs of Tom Russell and a new book of essays, Ceremonies of the Horsemen. An accomplished fine artist, Russell’s paintings are featured in Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell.

Artist’s website:

There are no videos from the new album yet so here’s an oldie to be going on with – ‘Navajo Rug’ – live:

Welcome To The Folkies

With Oscar fever rising to a climax it’s time to say “Welcome To The Folkies” – the 2016 Folking Awards. We’ve sifted through the albums and performances of 2015 – always a long and difficult task punctuated by bouts of thumb-wrestling to settle disputes. Adopting the pattern followed by everyone else, here, in no order of precedence, are our nominations. With the exception of one category we have restricted our choices to British acts.

All nominations are 2016 Folking Awards winners.

Welcome To The Folkies

Soloist Of The Year

Steve Tilston
Sam Carter
Kathryn Roberts
Steve Knightley
Ange Hardy

Best Duo

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin
India Electric Co.
Show Of Hands
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

Best Band

Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
False Lights
Merry Hell

Best Live Act

The Demon Barbers XL
Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
CC Smugglers

Best Album

Layers Of Ages – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner
Head Heart Hand – Megan Henwood
The Girl I Left Behind Me – India Electric Co.
It’s Not Your Gold Shall Me Entice – Elle Osborne
Disco At The Tavern – The Demon Barbers

Best Musician

Dan Walsh
Peter Knight
P.J. Wright
Chris Leslie
Kris Drever

Folking’s Rising Star

Will Varley
Sam Kelly
Wes Finch
India Electric Co.
Chris Cleverley

Best International Artist

Gretchen Peters
Tom Russell
Gandalf Murphy And The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams
Justin Townes Earle
Los Lobos

To give the awards a further edge, we opened the vote to our visitors and run a public poll in all of the 8 categories (as listed above).

The Public Vote closed Sunday 28 February at 20.00 hours and “The Folking Winners” have now been announced here at:

If you would like to consider ordering a copy of an album for any of our award winners (in CD or Vinyl), download an album or track or just listen to snippets of selected songs (track previews are usually on the download page) then type what you are looking for in the search bar above.

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us

The Essential Gretchen Peters

The Essential Gretchen PetersTwenty years on from Gretchen Peters’ debut solo album, The Secret Of Life, comes a career retrospective double CD set – half greatest hits, half demos and rarities. Gretchen is almost as well known as writer of songs for other singers and a collaborator as for her solo work so her guests on these tracks include some major names: Tom Russell, Bryan Adams, Ben Glover, Matraca Berg and Suzy Boggus.

The set opens with the crunching guitar of ‘Blackbirds’ from her most recent solo album but with her wide-ranging experience there isn’t a single Gretchen Peters sound. Most of her songs are built on her acoustic guitar, of course, but the wistfulness of ‘The Aviator’s Song’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ are in complete contrast to the anger of ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’. I think I prefer her angry.

There are musical touches that don’t let your attention wander. ‘The Matador’, a song reminiscent of both Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, features accordion and percussion that sounds like distant fireworks and ‘Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street)’ has organ and bells – not “churchy”; the organ is electric and the bells are a glockenspiel, I think, but the feeling of Sunday morning in suburbia is perfectly captured.

The second disc includes a radio edit of ‘Pretty Things’, a live ‘Woman On The Wheel’, a piano-based interpretation of the traditional ‘The Cruel Mother’ and several demos and work tapes. Notably among the latter is ‘Five Minutes’, which appears in full on the hits disc. And don’t forget the cover of ‘Wild Horses’ with Berg and Boggus.

There is a huge variety of styles and moods here and, moreover, some superb songs. If you don’t know Gretchen’s music this is the perfect way to get acquainted

Dai Jeffries

The Essential Gretchen Peters (Proper PRPCD134)

Artist’s website:

‘Five Minutes’ – live in the studio:

TOM RUSSELL – The Rose Of Roscrae (Proper Records PRPCD130)

RofRThe term “ballad opera” isn’t heard much these days but that is exactly what we have here. There are fifty-two tracks divided into two acts on two discs; some are song length, others are mere vignettes linking them. There are guest appearances from Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Eliza Gilkyson, Getchen Peters, Ian Tyson. Jimmy LaFave, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and even Bert Lloyd among many others. Some are playing roles, others providing background colour and some are old recordings co-opted for the show.

The basic package doesn’t offer much in the way of clues except for a quote taken from the narration which is spoken over the overture in which Russell explains that it begins with a hanging – which actually occurs in the middle of the story. Actually, there is a sixty page booklet with annotated lyrics but that’s not for the likes of humble reviewers. The story elements are not necessarily arranged chronologically so it can be confusing but we can say with some certainty that Russell plays an Irish kid called John Sutton who left Tipperary in the 1880s but he has several aliases and as many adventures.

Russell’s original songs tend towards solid country rock, a solid framework on which to hang the story. Except for the narrative pieces like ‘The Last Running’, of course. Other artists do their own thing, so there’s a gorgeous version of ‘Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos’ by LaFave and Peters and a rocking take on ‘Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’ with Gilkyson joining Russell. Some songs appear more than once in very different guises. Augie Myers, aka Augie Blood, does strange things to ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’ and ‘He’ll Be Dead Before He Hits The Ground’ and the concept of the last frontier are recurring threads.

The second act finds our hero in the guise of Spanish Johnny somewhere around the Mexican border but it begins briefly in Ireland and frequently takes the point of view of the women in John’s life. Some of this section is rather puzzling. ‘Damien’ mentions Belgium and Bergen for reasons which aren’t quite clear but ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, the story of a stolen fighting cock, leads neatly on to memories of Pancho Villa before one of our heroes is ‘Doin’ Hard Time In Texas’ – an excuse to include a Lead Belly song.

The Rose Of Roscrae is a wide-ranging, one might almost say sprawling, story – a collage of music and lives. At first sight it looks like a folly but it’s a glorious one.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

Tom Russell – The Rose Of Roscrae


Double CD album out 13th April 2015 on Proper Records

Tom Russell’s ambitious new double-album The Rose of Roscrae takes a fascinating look at the history of the American West and traditional cowboy and folk music, through the story of an Irish kid who travels to the United States in the late 1880s to become a cowboy.

Produced by Tom Russell and Barry Walsh, The Rose of Roscrae features a who’s who of legendary Americana icons including: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy LaFave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massengill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, and Pat Manske. The album’s overture is performed by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, arranged by Mats Hålling, composed by Tom Russell.

For over four decades and 28 album releases Tom Russell has continued to live up to his status as “one of the best singer-songwriters of our time” (Washington Post). His previous two  studio releases, Blood and Candle Smoke (2009) and Mesabi (2011), are considered his strongest composed works yet and were, in part, recorded with the groundbreaking roots band Calexico. In the 1990s, Russell and Dave Alvin were hailed as the architects of what came to be known as “Americana” music after their Merle Haggard tribute, Tulare Dust, initiated the Americana charts in the U.S. and remained number one for a year. Russell’s previous release, Aztec Jazz (2013), moved Americana into a new realm and his acclaimed song catalogue into uncharted territory.

Tom Russell’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, Nanci Griffith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, and others. The Rose of Roscrae is his third in a series of acclaimed folk operas, following The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and Hotwalker (2005). Russell has also composed movie scores, including songs for the Monte Hellman movie The Road To Nowhere and published five books, most recently 120 Songs of Tom Russell. An accomplished fine artist, Russell’s paintings are featured in: Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell.

Artist’s website:

‘The Rose Of Roscrae’ trailer video: