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Tom Russell: ‘Blood and Candle Smoke’

By: 7 July 2010 One Comment

Tom Russell’s Blood & Candle Smokecontinues his recent run of excellent albums.

Beginning with the spoken word/concept album Hotwalker,continuing with 2006’s Love & Fearand still coming strong with Blood and Candle Smoke, Tom Russell has carved a niche in the field of Americana that is at once a blend of the beat mystique of the fifties and Tex-Mex mythopoetics.

But that is a pretty small box to put him in since the songs here also range as far afield of Mexico as Africa and include tributes to people as disparate as Nina Simone and Mother Jones and include as much of the Bible as they do of Bukowski.

To be sure he paints a dark picture of America. Well, in all fairness, not just America but life in general. Surprisingly the most upbeat songs on the album are the two semi-autobiographical pieces — “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam” and “Criminology” —  which deal with his younger days. Criminology opens with the line, “I had a gun pointed at my head on several occasions and, yeah, Nadine I was scared.” It’s hard to imagine that he would feel nostalgia about being in Nigeria during the Biafran war, but that’s the impression I get.

The musicians are mostly members of the band Calexico and there are a lot of nifty rhythmic touches that aren’t typical of Russell’s work. It’s not quite a world beat sound, he’s songs don’t lend themselves to that sort of sound, but it is a more Latino-inflected beat than his normal sound and it really suits songs like Santa Ana Wind and Guadalupe. Guadalupe showcases his ability to write simple but direct lyrics that are nonetheless highly affecting:

When the mountains glow like mission wine
Or turn grey like a Spanish roan
Ten thousand eyes will stop to worship
Then turn away and head for home.

She is reaching out her arms tonight
And lord my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again
From Guadalupe on her hill.

And who am I to doubt these mysteries
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your children here
But I am most in need of hope.

I have a hard time pegging Russell’s niche. Sometimes he strikes me as the heir to Sinatra’s world weary mantle (I could imagine him singing “That’s Life” or “It was a Very Good Year”). Other times I think he’s what Springsteen would have been if Springsteen had been born in the desserts of California instead of New Jersey. It’s hard to describe a signer in terms of whom he sounds like, but it is enough to note that he deserves to be mentioned in that company.

Right now there’s a pretty big wave of interest in roots music and, and there are a lot of folks who are trying to cash in on that interest with facile songs that reference Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, amphetamines, two lane highways, and Jack Kerouac. Most of them lack anything approximating soul or vision. Tom Russell has ‘em in spades.

It’s hard to believe he once gave up music in favor of being a cab driver in New York City. You know, I bet he was one hell of a cabbie too.

About: Edwin E. Smith:
Edwin E. Smith is a poet, heckuva writer and all around swell guy. Send him an email at or visit him on the Internet at

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