October in the Railroad Earth

October in the Railroad Earth

by Tom Russell


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Tom Russell is perhaps the only living American songwriter who could get away with describing his album as "Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash...in Bakersfield." It may read like conceit, but his work over the last 45 years has earned him that claim. Russell is a renaissance man: He writes songs that have been covered by Cash, Ian Tyson, Doug Sahm, Iris DeMent, and more; he is also a fine painter, poet, essayist, and author. For over five decades his work has documented an all-but-forgotten North America -- from Mexico to the Northwest Territories -- through cultural and historical human archetypes, landscapes, events, and roads. The title derives from a long, rambling prose entry by Jack Kerouac that appeared in the Evergreen Review in 1957 recounting his experiences as a "student brakeman" on the Southern Pacific Railroad. It's fitting; these songs are rooted in endless travel, loneliness, strange encounters, tragedy, and the lives of hard-bitten, eternally restless angels. Assisting Russell are former Commander Cody guitar hero Bill Kirchen, singer and songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, pedal steel boss Marty Muse, drummer Rick Richards, and Los Texmaniacs' Josh and Max Baca. This 11-song set is steeped in country, rockabilly, and folk. No matter how these songs are arranged, they all tell stories rooted in life experiences -- some his own. "Small Engine Repair" illustrates what Russell does best: It charts the life of the anonymous working man, encompasses his sense of purpose, his defeats, and his willingness to continue even when hope is stacked against him. The whining pedal steel hovers above balanced acoustic and electric guitars with Richards' insistent snare framing it all, as his resonant baritone embodies the life of his subject. "Isadore Gonzalez" is a corrido about a Mexican cowboy who died performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and lies buried in England. It's an ironic allegory about fame. The dignity with which he imbues his subject is revelatory. The honky tonk ballad "Red Oak, Texas" is about twins who served in the Middle East and came back broken. Using Robert Graves' WWI poetry as a metonymic device, he draws a fitting parallel. The duet between Russell and Gilkyson on "Back Streets of Love" is arresting in its sparse arrangement and wistful beauty. Few songwriters capture the desperation of romance and loneliness like this. The rocking Americana of "Hand-Raised Wolverines" is an allegory about the pace of modern life that leaves no recourse for depth and substance. "When the Road Gets Rough" is a roots rocker co-written with his wife Nadine. The narrative recounts strangeness, frustrations, and small victories while the pair are stuck on the highway. He closes with a fine, rocking rendition of Cash's "Wreck of the Old 97" with Kirchen and Muse on stun. After dozens of records, it's impossible to rank this in Russell's catalog because the vast majority of his albums -- this one included -- are prized treasures in the wandering American songman tradition.

Product Details

Release Date: 03/15/2019
Label: Frontera Records
UPC: 0720562545800
catalogNumber: 45800
Rank: 7154

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