March 1999

Tom Russell - The Man From God Knows Where
HighTone HCD 8099
Released: 1999

by Marc Mickelson

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]The Man From God Knows Where is Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell’s artistic apex and most distinguished recording, which is high praise given his body of work. Russell is a craftsman of a vast array American musical forms, including country and western, electrified folk, Tex-Mex, cowboy, and combinations of all of these and others. He has a knack for well-crafted, resonant lyrics, which are sung in his chesty and authoritative voice. These things have endeared him to me -- Russell is one musician whose discs I buy just because they’re his, no convincing needed. I’m always curious to see where he’s going, and I’m always glad to be along for the ride.

The Man From God Knows Where is a collection that walks the line between a song cycle and a sort of folk opera so deftly that it ends up being a work both epic in scope and acutely observed. In it Russell and crew perform musical monologues and incidental songs that explore Russell’s ancestry and the maturation of America. For this venture, Russell assembled a skillful supporting cast that includes Iris Dement, whose clear and plaintive voice is a perfect counterpoint and complement to Russell’s, and Dave Van Ronk, Greenwich Village folkie who sings a couple of the more raucous numbers. The Man From God Knows Where is the kind of work that can easily collapse under its own ambition, but the good news is that it succeeds and has some glorious high points.

The collection begins with the title track, which liner notes show to be a single song. However, it’s performed as four separate pieces and thus acts as a unifying thread. We meet, in song, a handful of Russell’s ancestors, including "Patrick Russell," "Mary Clare Malloy," and "Ambrose Larsen." These songs are first-person narratives that tell the immigrant story in a way that never cheapens hardship or overplays it, revealing in the end that leaving the place you call home may be the greatest thing to overcome. Interspersed between these songs and others like them are ones that deepen understanding of the collection’s landscape. The two parts of the swinging "The Outcast," sung by Van Ronk, tell the story of those who came to America because they had to and then were exploited because they could be. "Acres of Corn" tells of the longing for a life that’s of higher estate than that down on the farm, its protagonist getting tipsy, putting on her "gown" and "waltzing through the cornfields, ‘til I fall down." The title of "Sitting Bull in Venice" suggests what one of its lines spells out, " I about to cry or laugh?" And "Anna Olsen’s Letter Home" speaks of floods, the frontier, and progress. "Throwin’ Horseshoes at the Moon" is Russell’s father’s story, not a happy one. It ends with a simple but profound question: "How can you be a loser if you never lose your pride?"

Walt Whitman makes an appearance via an early wax-cylinder recording, and I hear echoes of poet Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology in Russell’s carefully crafted songs of lives gone by. It’s obvious from the lyrics that Russell is well versed -- couplets such as "Oh Whiskey is the life of man; but whiskey’s mostly water / It’s whiskey fuels the worker, and corrupts his only daughter" don’t just flow off the pen of the uninitiated. However, the beauty here is that The Man From God Knows Where never becomes merely academic -- as though listeners will need every nuance explained to them. Instead, the individual songs live on their own as well as together, which makes the entire collection very accessible. The sound here is good news too -- clear, spacious, and impactful overall. The Man From God Knows Where is a long disc, 26 selections and over 76 minutes, but this just gives more opportunity to hear Russell’s sinewy and sympathetic voice.

There is so much more that can be said about this wonderful disc -- about the beauty of the performances, the small and large artistic touches, the instrumental flourishes -- but doing so will only belabor the point that I think very highly of it and lessen the discovery for those who have yet to hear it. Although collections like Poor Man’s Dream, Rose of the San Joachin and Hillbilly Voodoo may be better places to start appreciating the music of Tom Russell, The Man From God Knows Where is where you’ll end up. And what a trip it will be.