Tom Russell mixes country, folk, rock and Spanish influences on new CD ‘Mesabi’

In the past month there have been excellent new releases from some of my very favorite singer songwriters: Joe Ely, John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen, Ry Cooder.

And then, Tuesday saw the release of Tom Russell’s newest record “Mesabi.”

The cover photo is of a very colorful Russell painting of a Native American with a bluebird on his shoulder, which led me to think that Mesabi was an actual person or a Native American.

Not being sure, I looked it up online and found out from Wikipedia that “The Mesabi Iron Range is a vast deposit of iron ore and the largest of four major iron ranges in the region collectively known as the Iron Range of Minnesota. Mesabi Range was known to the local Ojibwe as Misaabe-wajiw: ‘Giant’s Mountain’ or ‘Big-man’s Mountain.’ Bob Dylan was raised on the Mesabi Range in Hibbing. His song ‘North Country Blues’ is about the decline of mining in the Mesabi Range, and its effect on miners and their families.”

“Mesabi,” the album’s title track, has an opening instrumental that sounds like Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit,” and mentions Buddy Holly and Richie Valens and contains these lines:

“Some things never change, on the Mesabi Iron Range. Where that wild north country rain screams: ‘Please don’t make me do the work my father did.’ Bethlehem of the troubadour kid, along with ‘Just a kid listening to my Uncle George’s record player, while the great vinyl wheel spun round its holy prayer. And steel guitars in the Telecaster bars of the San Joaquin towns. And Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright from the wild Mesabi Holy Ground.”

“Mesabi” which clocks in at more than 63 minutes, contains a nearly-nine-minute cover of Dylan’s “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall” with help from Calexico and Lucinda Williams. Other contributors to the record include songwriting pal Gretchen Peters, as well as Viktor Krauss, Van Dyke Parks, Will Kimbrough, David Henry and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet.

Russell, who is a true American artist in the way that Cash was, covers many other topics on his new CD. He mixes country, folk and rock with Spanish influences highlighted by trumpets, accordions and Spanish guitars and touches on subjects such as the death of Elizabeth Taylor and the lives of actors Sterling Hayden and child actor Bobby Driscoll, who was the voice of Peter Pan and played in other Disney movies.

“A Land Called Way Out There” is a song about California in the early 1960s covering the death of James Dean.

“Roll the Credits Johnny” is a love song about the romance of the old time movie theaters of Russell’s youth.

Russell, who lives in El Paso, Texas, and has watched as that area has deteriorated over the past several years, touches on it in two songs: “And God Created Border Towns” and “Good Night Juarez,” where he laments the downfall of his beloved Old Juarez.

When I interviewed Russell in 2009, he said that Juarez was like “Calcutta on the border” and that he could watch the border war from his porch.

“Mesabi” finds Russell in fine form with another batch of songs that are pure Americana in every sense of the word.

Rock Cesario owns Triple Play Records, 530 Main St., and hosts “Acoustic Sunday” from 9 a.m. to noon Sunday on Drive 105.3 FM. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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