Tom 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.
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Tom Russell talks about Folk Hotel: