Nineteenth album from a great American storyteller

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Overall rating:

Score 5

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Western Skies

Opening with a blast of discordant brass from the Juarez Bull Ring Band, Tom Russell immediately transports you to the Mexican border that he now calls his home. Suddenly you’re saddling up with General Black Jack Pershing for “Tonight We Ride” and hunting down Pancho Villa across a desert “so dry you couldn’t spit”. Driven by Joel Guzman’s Tex-Mex accordion, this is a brilliantly visual narrative that sets the tone for the entire album.

Indians Cowboys… is Russell’s third album since 1991’s Cowboy Real to exclusively explore contemporary Western music. It’s by far the most committed, mixing original songs with highly personalised covers to produce a seamless evocation of the real West. No better is this highlighted than on his revision of Marty Robbins’ “EI Paso”, done as a border corrido. Hardly the clean-cut, pop version, here the gunfighter hero is an unshaven, drunken, lascivious Warren Oates-type figure. The centrepiece of the album is a compelling reading of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”, almost Shakespearean in the way it’s acted out by Russell and guests Joe Ely and Eliza Gilkyson, the drama underpinned by spooky Dylaneseque Hammond B3 organ. There’s a second, more obscure Dylan cover, a sorry tale of injustice, “Seven Curses”, typical of Dylan’s 1964 output but here re-shoed and with haunting electric guitar from Russell’s regular sidekick, Andrew Hardin. Elsewhere, Russell takes Linda Thompson’s heart-tugging “No Telling”, changes a few words and recasts it as a lament for an old cowpunk.

The best of the Russell originals, offset by a Scarlett Rivera-style fiddle part, is an impassioned political broadside on how the New West has raped the old. “The Ballad Of Edward Abbey” is a tribute to the modern-day outlaw who wrote “The Brave Cowboy”, which became the Kirk Douglas movie Lonely Are The Brave.

This is a wonderful album of inspired writing and fiery performances, depicting a love of the West, its people, traditions and threatened culture. If American music needs an heir to Johnny Cash, Tom Russell might just be the man. He’s the real deal.