In the 1990’s Tom Russell was, along with Dave Alvin, hailed as the architect of what came to be known as Americana music. Folk Hotel is album number 36 for Russell and, in 2017, he has surely delivered one of the Americana albums of the year. This is a storytellers’ album with every song a poem or a story in its own right. A year after the passing of one of the great song writing poets, Leonard Cohen, a song about New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Up in The Old Hotel, provides a fitting and high-quality opening. Leaving El Paso, a song about the journey Russell and his wife made following the route the Spanish took to Santa Fe some 500 years previously, features Eliza Gilkyson on vocals and some gorgeous Tex-Mex accordion from Joel Guzman.
Russell’s great storytelling is not restricted to his homeland – indeed one of the lasting impressions from a man who is also a renowned artist with the brush is the way he relocates his canvas. The Sparrow of Swansea is for Dylan Thomas, whom, along with Hemmingway, Russell cites as an inspiration for a number of songs on the album. With its hints of Ralph McTell’s The Streets of London this is a wonderfully evocative painting of a life and the landscape that surrounded it. Russell also visits Northern Ireland on All on a Belfast Morning, Canada on I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses, a song about his great friend Ian Tyson and, on The Rooftops of Copenhagen, a tale of Ove Joensen who famously rowed 900 nautical miles from The Faroe Islands to Denmark.
If the common thread running throughout the album is that of powerful and thoughtful storytelling then musically, as Russell himself identifies, there are subtle shifts as the album progresses. Yes, this is, in the main, an album that can be slotted into the category of high class folk orientated Americana but there are also country and blues influences here that weave seamlessly into the fabric of the album.
These are all self-penned tracks with the exception of Russell’s favourite Dylan song, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, on which Joe Ely duets. Expertly produced by Russell and Mark Hallman this is, with 14 tracks and well over an hour in running time, a triumph.