For this third personal choice of a Classic Americana Album, the emphasis is on songwriting as storytelling. As a core foundation of the genre that does not narrow the candidate list a great deal but for sheer consistency over a career that exceeds forty years a name that does pop up frequently is Tom Russell. His vast output of creativity is a challenge in itself but his 36th solo record, ‘Folk Hotel’ gets the prize, not least because Russell himself considered this 2017 release something of a return to the bare bones of storytelling.
Russell is an artist who needs little introduction having received much critical acclaim not just for the quality of his work, but its vast scope; writing songs, poetry, prose, making music and painting. You might wonder then what is there left to do? ‘Folk Hotel’ is a very distinct shift of emphasis back to one man playing guitar and singing songs. As he put it, “I’m only interested in the strong song”.
Russell linked the idea behind ‘Folk Hotel’ to ‘One More For Ian and Sylvia’ a tribute to the Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson, released earlier that year. A pared-back ‘60s style record of their songs which Russell described as “me sitting with a guitar singing songs, which is a lot harder than it sounds. It worked for the Ian and Sylvia record so I wanted to try it with my own songs”.
‘Folk Hotel’ is very much Russell’s way of getting back to making music and telling a story. His influences span from classical music, Broadway musicals to cowboy songs. He grew up on Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ian and Sylvia but what really interested him was a singer and a story such as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, “both wonderful storytellers. I’m passionately into great songwriters”.
Russell painted the cover picture. If it looks like the Chelsea Hotel then that’s no surprise because inside The Folk Hotel there are people from all over the world and all are brought together by the proprietor, Mr Tom Russell.
The opening song, ‘Up in The Old Hotel’ refers to the book of the same name by the famed New Yorker journalist and chronicler, “Ghost of Joseph Mitchell came tumbling down the hall”. There is accompaniment throughout the record, always perfectly pitched but in a supporting role. Here it is Joel Guzman’s lilting accordion.
Scene thus set, the deepest impression this album leaves is of people and places. The playing is impeccable but the sweep of places and the people we meet on the way is what makes Russell such a storyteller. The West features as you might expect. ‘Leaving El Paso’ is about the move he and his wife made to Santa Fe along the conquistador trail. We stay in the region for ‘I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses’ about Russell’s failed attempt to entice Ian Tyson from his Canadian home (and horses) to join him out west. The accordion is back but this is most certainly one man singing a song playing his guitar. We could be round the campfire.
From there we go to Wales for a gritty version of the song he wrote with Katy Moffatt dedicated to Dylan Thomas, ‘The Sparrow of Swansea’. Next it is over the Irish Sea for ‘All on a Belfast Morning’, where Russell sings of a day in the life of that city. Of all the places he goes on this record, this song above all demonstrates his ability to sing from the perspective of a local. Russell can come to your town and tell you about where he is from, but inspired by his perceptive take on a place, he will tell you about yours. He does not limit himself to English speaking locations either, the same applies to ‘The Rooftops of Copenhagen’, about a Faroese who won a bet and became a local hero for rowing a kayak from his home across the seas to Denmark. Russell met him in a bar making good progress spending his winnings. These are all totally absorbing stories.
Of all the people we find in the Folk Hotel the most vivid is ’Harlan Clancy’, a collective representation of the many people Russell worked with in his early life. This was hard work; mending roofs and early hours on a dairy farm. Harlan Clancy comes from a world most visitors to the US don’t see; he is not on the coasts but ekes out a living somewhere in the middle. His views may not chime with those on either side but he is a good man, just caught in two worlds.” “I ain’t no racist, I ain’t no redneck” sings Russell as Harlan props up the bar with his Mexican fellow worker and friend. “You lost the common man in all your psychobabble and political spin”.
‘The Day They Dredged The Liffey/The Banks of Montauk/The Road to Santa Fe-O’ bursts with Russel’s creativity. He starts by reciting poetry as if he were every bit the Dubliner as those he describes gathering together. The song ends with what feels like a sea shanty about the life that lies ahead in America.
The album finishes with two bonus tracks; ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Russell’s favourite Dylan composition that he sings in a perfect duet with Joe Ely and ‘Scars On His Ankles’, an imaginary encounter between legendary Rolling Stone writer Grover Lewis and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Tom Russell described ‘Folk Hotel’ as the most significant project he had worked on for years. In seeking to get back to one person, a guitar and a song, he draws on his sharp perception, wide reading, boundless imagination and wit. Classic Americana.
You can read our original review of Tom Russell’s ‘Folk Hotel’ here