Los Angeles-born and bred singer-songwriter Tom Russell grew up loving Broadway musicals rooted in western themes such as “Oklahoma!” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” but always lamented that the hit shows typically were written by New Yorkers and consequently lacked a certain cultural authenticity.
So Russell took matters into his own hands and has just released “The Rose of Roscrae,” an ambitious two-CD concept album he’s describing, only somewhat whimsically, as “'Les Miserables' with cowboy hats.”
The recording boasts a wagon load of country and Americana music luminaries including Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Eliza Gilkyson, Dan Penn, Gretchen Peters, Ian Tyson, Jimmy LaFave and Augie Meyers, along with some cherry-picked vintage recordings that add the voices of Johnny Cash, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Lead Belly and Tex Ritter, Mexican norteno and mariachi groups, French Canadian songs and other colorful elements from U.S. border regions.
Russell, probably most widely known for co-writing “Outbound Plane” with Nanci Griffith, returns to the Southland for a show Saturday at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. He says he’ll serve up “a rough guide” to “The Rose of Roscrae” during the first half of the show, then survey music from the rest of his 40-year-plus recording career in the second half. Although Russell has often performed solo throughout his career, he’s accompanied on this tour by another guitarist, Thad Beckman.
“I’ve been researching this for 20 years, at least,” Russell told The Times via email. “I've always thought of a ‘frontier musical,’ in the tradition of ‘Oklahoma!’ or ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ but written from the viewpoint, lingo and voice of a real Westerner -- using authentic dialogue and traditional songs.”
The project was born out of conversations Russell had with his sister-in-law, Carolyn Russell, after her husband—Tom’s brother—left her and their children, leaving her to raise the family on her own on a sprawling 30,000-acre Central California ranch.
From there he worked backward on a story with roots in Ireland that helps capture the immigrant experience as well as the roots of much of American folk and country music that originated in Ireland, England and Scotland.
“When I'd completed the title song,” Russell said, “I realized I wanted to link the story back to Ireland -- and then I could, as a subtext, show the roots of our cowboy and folk music -- that much of it can be traced back to old English, Irish, and Scottish ballads.
“‘The Streets of Laredo,’ for instance, goes back to an old English ballad, ‘The Unfortunate Rake,’ and I was able to get a recording of that by the famous English folklorist A.L. Lloyd and then use it and have it melt into Jimmie Dale Gilmore singing ‘The Streets of Laredo,’” he said. “And so, beneath the formal story of an Irish kid coming to America in 1880 and becoming a cowboy, I have several subtexts which try to portray the depth of our music. If folks really wish to get into it there's a side book we offer, which contains notes on the history of the project and all songs and performers - as well as the complete lyrical score.”
Russell is exploring the prospects of fully staging “The Rose of Roscrae,” either here in the U.S., London or elsewhere overseas--“Believe it or not there’s a tremendous audience for American musicals in Hamburg, Germany,” he noted — or adapting it to film. (“Woody Allen has always wanted to do a western-based project,” Russell said. “I’ve also done a score for a Monte Hellman film, and Monte directed several early Jack Nicholson westerns. Monte loves ‘The Rose of Roscrae.’ We’ll see.”)
“There were obstacles aplenty,” Russell said of bringing “The Rose of Roscrae” to fruition. “Naysayers, critics, money hassles, arguments….all part of the music business when you wish to stretch out and move forward.”
But, he added, “You have to move out far beyond from where you’ve been before. Or as Flannery O’Connor stated, ‘You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.’”