Music » Critics' Picks

Tom Russell

Thursday, March 25; Off Broadway

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You can trace Tom Russell's skeptical fascination with the American West to his earliest recordings -- or perhaps all the way back to his Los Angeles childhood. Although Russell spent years studying criminology and traveling throughout Latin America, Canada and Africa, he finally settled along the Texas-Mexico border: In the collision of Native American, Mexican and Anglo-American cultures, Russell has found an inexhaustible well of storytelling. He got deep into vaquero culture on 1991's Cowboy Real, where he set down his finest version of "Gallo del Cielo" (Joe Ely later laid definitive claim to it on Letter to Laredo), an American epic that crystallized most of his themes: the attraction and consequences of crime, the agonies and ecstasies of immigrant life, the burden of kinship ties, the enduring but unsentimental heroism of working-class life.

His most recent record, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, finds Russell twisting and turning the mythic West until its political and moral secrets are revealed. He does it without self-absorption (Russell is perhaps the most anti-narcissistic of the post-Dylan singer-songwriters), whether slipping into a bronco-buster's skin and soul; juxtaposing Dylan's "Seven Curses," an early ballad of a horse thievery, with Marty Robbins' "El Paso"; intoning Chief Seattle's prophetic judgment on Manifest Destiny; or offering, in the voice of Edward Abbey, a pitiless attack on West Texas real estate developers. Russell is a major songwriter whose best songs will still be sung and will still resonate long after current fads and fashions have been laid to waste.

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