A songwriter, painter, essayist and thriller writer, Tom Russell could never be described as unambitious. Among his exceptional back catalogue of driving country, folk and sand-speckled Tex-Mex ballads, Russell has released a couple of albums – The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and Hotwalker (2005) – which used a combination of original compositions, spoken word, guest voices, refrains and folk recordings to explore aspects of America’s past. Rose Of Roscrea completes this cinematic trio, telling the story of an Irish vagabond on the loose in the America West, chased by sheriffs and dreams of home, as he flits from Mexico to Canada through prairie, prison and fairground. This is Russell’s take on how the West was won by “Irish drunks, ex-slaves and Mexicans”.
It is an epic tale, a blend of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bertolt Brecht, Cormac McCarthy and Louis L’Amour, thick with references to American history, music and myth as well as a John Ford-style appreciation of the Old Country. The roll call of guest stars is immense – contributors include Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Guy Clark, Gretchen Peters, Augie Meyers, Walt Whitman, Joe Ely, Tex Ritter, Leadbelly – some dredged from old recordings, others singing or speaking to fill out the story. Snippets of traditional songs (“St James Hospital”, “Sam Hall”, “Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos”, “The Unfortunate Rake”) add atmosphere and provide context for 25 or so original compositions.
Russell is a hell of a songwriter, and here are several fantastic examples of his craft: “Johnny Behind The Deuce”, a rollicking country anthem; “Rose Of Roscrae”, a gloriously sentimental Irish ballad; “He Wasn’t A Bad Kid, When He Was Sober”, a brilliant rocker; the southern boogie of “Doin’ Hard Time In Texas”; and the gospel love song “Resurrection Mountain”. All told, it’s an awful lot to listen to, sprawling over two albums and featuring so many locations and characters it can be hard to keep track of what’s happening. But the scope is majestic, the ambition outrageous and the music magnificent. A unique accomplishment.