Tom Russell Biography

5 March 1950, Arizona, USA. The country singer-songwriter Tom Russell grew up on a ranch in Santa Monica and had twin influences of cowboys and country music. He says, ‘Southern California was very rich in country music, not only with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but also the Hollywood cowboy scene. My brother became a full-on cowboy. It’s in the blood.’

In the 60s, Russell became immersed in folk and blues music, and he became very interested in the work of Ian and Sylvia Tyson. After playing numerous small-scale gigs, he struck lucky in 1974 when a song about the end of the Indian culture in Canada, ‘End Of The Trail’, won an award at an American song festival and was recorded by the Hagers. Russell then worked with the pianist Patricia Hardin as a folk duo, Hardin And Russell, strongly influenced by Ian And Sylvia. They recorded two excellent albums, Ring Of Bone and Wax Museum.

Russell moved to New York in 1980 and after trying to establish contacts, he was offered work at a circus in Puerto Rico. ‘I was drinking a lot and my marriage was breaking up. I learnt all the time that there are lower depths to hell because the carnival was a major fiasco and there was a lot of violence. I had to sing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ with a French-Canadian disco band, who couldn’t speak much English and hated country music, to a Puerto Rican audience, who couldn’t speak English and also hated country music. It was a real life Fellini movie and I wrote about it in ‘Road To Bayamon’.’ Russell started driving a cab in New York City and met up with Andrew Hardin, the guitarist who has since been his long-time musical partner. One of his passengers, Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, encouraged him to return to music by having him open for that band. ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, a brilliant song about cock-fighting, was recorded by Ian Tyson, leading to a songwriting and performing relationship, including ‘Navajo Rug’, which was recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker. Russell has written with, and produced albums for, Tyson’s ex-wife Sylvia Tyson, and one of their joint songs is ‘Chocolate Cigarettes’ about Edith Piaf. Russell has also written songs about Little Willie John (‘Blue Wing’), Bill Haley (‘Haley’s Comet’) and Mitch Ryder (‘The Extra Mile’). He wrote ‘Walking On The Moon’ with Katy Moffatt, ‘Outbound Plane’ with Nanci Griffith and ‘Angel Of Lyon’ with Steve Young. He has also produced the R&B musician Barrence Whitfield singing folk and country songs, and occasionally, Andrew Hardin, Russell and Whitfield work as the Hillbilly Voodoo Trio. He has also played with Dave Alvin - they co-wrote ‘Haley’s Comet’ and also co-produced a tribute album to Merle Haggard, Tulare Dust.

Russell is both a superb and a prolific writer, a latter-day John Stewart, possessing his integrity and also chronicling the life of blue-collar America. Many of the songs reflect incidents in his own life and he relives his worst gig in one - ‘We were just outside Toronto during Halloween week and these people were so ugly that they came to the party dressed as AIDS patients. You couldn’t find a decent bite to eat and our car was hit head on by some drunk kid. It was in the dead of winter in Canada, 20 below zero, and there were fights all the time. It’s all in that song, ‘Northern Towns’.’

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.