LONDON (Reuters) - Texas-based singer Tom Russell has led a picaresque life, from teaching criminology in war-torn Nigeria to playing strip joints in Vancouver’s red-light district.
He’s lived in Spain and Norway, written songs for Johnny Cash, driven a cab and followed bullfighters in Mexico.
Such experiences have given him plenty to write about in his wry, witty songs that reference figures from British writer Graham Greene to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
“My career has gone backwards to most people. I didn’t come out of a box with my best-selling records and live off that for the rest of my life,” Russell told Reuters in an interview in London. “I feel I’m in great shape to write a lot more.”
With his rangy frame, sonorous voice and Stetson, he looks like he would be right at home in a cowboy saloon.
But despite his genial demeanor, death often lurks in his songs. He’s lived for the past 15 years in the Texan border town of El Paso.
“From near my house we can see Juarez. The most dangerous city in the world. Right across the border is the frontline of the Mexican drugs war.”
The border violence is one theme of Russell’s latest recording, “Mesabi,” which he is showcasing on a string of dates across Europe this spring. It also deals with Hollywood, fame and falls from grace.
The title refers to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota where Bob Dylan hails from.
“I went up there a few years ago to play a gig and I got to see the house in Duluth he was born in and the auditorium where he saw Buddy Holly play when he was a kid. Then I went up to Hibbing.”
“I was just amazed that he came from this little mining town on the Mesabi Iron Range. Then I thought of myself as a kid in Los Angeles, listening to his records. So that starts this record off.”
The thread moves to Los Angeles, where Russell grew up and watching Disney on a Saturday afternoon was a childhood ritual. The song “Farewell Never Never Land” shows his knack for mining gold from obscure sources.
“It’s about Bobby Driscoll. He was the voice of Peter Pan in the Walt Disney cartoon. I found out that he died as an unknown junkie, some kids discovered his body in New York, he’s buried in an unmarked grave. How ironic a story is that?
Another song recalls Sterling Hayden, the tough-guy actor and star of “Johnny Guitar,” who was wracked by guilt for finking on fellow actors during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s.
Then an ode to Elizabeth Taylor, living with husband Nicky Hilton in an El Paso hotel, takes us to the Mexican border.
Russell has written often about the hardships of Mexican migrants and in “And God Created Border Towns” and “Goodnight Juarez,” he laments the violence of the drugs wars.
“Americans tend to want to forget about it — 30 or 40,000 people have been killed in this drug war that’s basically a billion dollar industry and these cartels are killing each other in order to sell us the drugs.”
“We’re buying the drugs and also selling them the guns. They’re killing each other and we have a lot to do with it.
In concert, Russell is a hugely entertaining performer, making wisecracks and telling anecdotes between songs. On a recent night at the Cecil Sharp House, home of English folk, he regaled the audience with his off-the-cuff gonzo humor before hushing them with songs of hard times and struggle.
The music was fleshed out with flourishes from flamenco to Mississippi blues from guitarist Thad Beckham that evoked the Tex-Mex border.
As well as his musical adventures, he has published a book of his art work — “Blue Horse, Red Desert,” writes essays on Western life for a ranching magazine. He’s also published a detective novel and a book of letters with Charles Bukowski and is working on a novel about Juarez.
His life has often led him down off-beat paths.
Just out of university in Santa Barbara with a masters in criminology, he took a job teaching in Nigeria, then wracked by the war over Biafra.
“In 1969, I didn’t go to Woodstock and I didn’t go to Vietnam. I went to West Africa. It was an amazingly strange and violent experience, where I grew up very quickly.”
“I was arrested getting off the plane because I had taken pictures out of the window and I had no idea it was war zone and you can’t do that. There was a U.S. Embassy guy on the plane who bribed my way out of being thrown in jail.”
It was during that sojourn that he first read the books of Graham Greene, whose territory also ran from Africa to Mexico.
“I was able to read a lot, read everything. Years later I wrote him a fan letter and he wrote me back a note that I have on my wall in Texas.”
But if like Greene, he has found himself a dangerous places and often championed the underdog and the oppressed, he is not staking out a political position.
“I’m not really a political person. My songs certainly aim at a topic but I don’t have any overt politics. The song has to be a good song, rather than a song about something that’s supposedly good.”