Tex-Mex singer/songwriter Tom Russell, who is playing the Sportsmen’s Tavern at 7 p.m. Wednesday, prefers email interviews. And maybe that’s just as well.
What appears to be an in-person interview on the Internet is full of four-letter words – the kind of language you might expect given Russell’s dark, brooding songs. Songs like “Tonight We Ride,” about a posse on the move. Even the brighter “Outbound Plane,” covered by Suzy Bogguss, is about a love affair on the way out.
Then there is the matter of Russell’s in-your-face opinions.
Artistically, he is famously anti-establishment. Russell likes rough, vivid writers, like Graham Greene and Charles Bukowski (with whom he corresponded). He decries writers who come out of academia, like Joyce Carol Oates, whom he blasts as verbose and opaque.
Eagerly, he accepts the invitation to apply similar criticism to classical composers.
“My uncle was a classical pianist,” he types. “I loved it when he played the Chopin Polanaises – or anything by Chopin. We listen to opera at home (Verdi) and also Strauss. I like melodies that build and return. I have very basic tastes in classical music.
“But why can’t we create new composers along the lines of the greats like Bach and Beethoven? Because classical music now comes out funded, from the university, and does not come from the street. So hip-hop is more relevant.”
Russell’s terse manner does not surprise people who know his songs.
“He speaks a lot more with his music than he does personally,” says Ron LaSalle, a successful singer-songwriter who divides his time between Chicago and his native Niagara Falls.
While LaSalle has not met Russell, he has observed him closely for a long time.
“I was a staff writer for EMI’s Nashville office, for about five years,” LaSalle explains. “I fell in love with his music when he first came on the radar, back in the ’90s. The Texas music was coming in a lot. We got turned on to a lot of people from Texas, what we would call outsiders. I paid attention to him over the years. I have the utmost respect for him.
“I honestly think it’s his honesty,” he reflects. “He’s never tried to be anything but what he was. In my humble opinion I don’t think he ever tried to be a star of any kind. He just did what he did. He doesn’t have this gigantic following. He has this very loyal following.”
Russell, 65, has never played Buffalo before.
“No, just passing through,” Russell says. “I have a postcard of someone who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Does that count? That’s about it. But I’m looking forward to the show. I’ve heard great things about the club. The line-ups look great.”
The Sportsmen’s gig, on Wednesday, falls between a stop the night before in Pittsburgh and a Thursday show in Toronto. Russell doesn’t mind the travel.
“My wife keeps me going,” he writes. “She’s a psychologist and sees that we eat healthy. We both love touring – hotels and the stage. It keeps you in shape. I’m a troubadour and love the trade.”
The start of Russell’s career is the stuff of legend. After bouncing around between cities, jobs and family, he was driving a cab long ago in New York City. He picked up a fare who turned out to be Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter, learning Russell was a songwriter, asked to hear a song. Impressed, he invited Russell to open for him in New York.
Oddly enough, that was their last meeting.
“He’s written me a few times about how much he likes my recent records,” Russell writes. “Never seen him in person since the New York meet. He totally turned my career around.”
Since that discovery, Russell’s life has not been what could be termed easy. But he channels the hard knocks into music. A broken marriage made its way into some songs. So did Bukowski’s poetry.
“Tom is kind of like a leader in this whole – some people call it Americana, some people call it alternative country,” LaSalle says. “Basically, it’s all the good music rolled into one that has no place to live. It all kind of falls under the singer/songwriter category.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Russell looked up to gritty musicians, men who made their living on the road. One idol was Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Lightnin’ was my favorite blues act,” he writes. “I saw him at the Ash Grove in L.A. when I was a kid. He was the real thing. He sang a song about selling wine to an underage Indian girl and getting busted for it. I couldn’t believe it.”
Big Joe Turner was another idol.
“My friend Dave Alvin worked with him, I believe. He told Dave that if you can’t remember a song, it ain’t worth remembering. That’s about all I know. Never met the man. These guys were bigger than life. We don’t build folks like this anymore.”
Aggressive individuality aside, Russell has proved himself over the years to be a warm collaborator.
He smiles tenderly in a YouTube video at Nanci Griffith as they sing his song “Canadian Whiskey,” about a doomed affair. (“Two great artists enjoying each other’s company,” reads one comment.)
“I’ve enjoyed working with John Prine and singing with Johnny Cash in Switzerland. Ultimate moment,” he writes. “I connected with an audience in Amsterdam recently, in an old church. It was special. Europeans really listen deep down into the heart of the songs.”
The songs don’t always come easily to him.
“I wrote a song once called ‘Stolen Children’ that was about parents running off with children, after a divorce, and the kids who end up on milk cartons. It didn’t come off. Now that one was dark!” he says. “It didn’t resonate … sounded heavy-handed. It’s on a record called ‘Love and Fear.’ ”
Russell shows a trace of tenderness, when asked about his favorite. He names “Guadalupe,” from his record “Blood and Candle Smoke.”
“It’s about sitting in the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and experiencing some sort of mystical moment,” he says. “It’s my favorite song that I’ve written.”
“I don’t know if my songs are dark so much as realistic short stories,” Russell reflects. He adds: “99% of all songs out there are sort of watered down love songs. I think the feeling of sinister lies in the heart of the listener who doesn’t want music, books or movies to challenge them, but I want art to change me when I experience it. Not much does.”