Tom Russell – Hotwalker (2005)
So, what’s a hotwalker? Well, it’s a person (usually a stable-hand) who walks a hot, sweaty horse after a workout, or a sprint on the racetrack. Tom Russell has an interest in people for a start; much of his music is observational, or tributary, or reflective. But he also has an interest in exceptional people too, and this, the second part of his Americana trilogy, certainly features many of those. In fact, it’s a very unique listening experience which intersperses snippets of free speech (from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, hobo composer Harry Partch, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac and Little Jack Horton) with musical interludes. It’s a record – if you can call it that – that requires lamplight and your full attention. It’s useless without both.
Russell is an exceptional artist. He’s as earthy a singer-songwriter as you’ll ever hear who writes about the land and towns and cities and smog and people and words and poetry and music – basically a fascinating mix of the most organic parts of life, and then the the inevitable emergence of skid row. His music is a melting pot of many traditional genres, such as folk, country, folk-rock, and most poignantly, cowboy music of the American West. He has a particular fascination for the Mexico border, and paints landscapes with words in the most vivid way. His music has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, k.d lang, Nanci Griffith and many others of repute. He’s prolific too – he writes albums for fun and paints the most wonderful avant-garde canvasses. A bone-deep artist through and through.
This very original concept behind Hotwalker is a depiction of post-war Beat landscape, where drunks and roamers and lost poets and outsiders star in Russell’s journey into the soul of “the old America, where the big guilt, political correctness and chainstores hadn’t sunk in so deep”. Russell acts as narrator, and the soliloquies of Little Jack Horton, a carnival circus midget who hung out drinking with Charles Bukowski, are particularly fascinating. That high-pitched voice is clearly from a time gone by – and now, it is. He died shortly after these recordings were made. His tale about stealing a train with Bukowski after a heavy drinking session would seem certain to be fiction had it not been Bukowski that was involved.
The record is a sweeping, chug-along journey through rough-ass country talk, squawking jazz, stripped back and chiselled folky-blues, spooked parlour songs, hypnotic carousel waltzes and americana drama. There’s a nod to the Pope of Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, (Van Ronk) delivered in Russell’s neatly emphatic baritone, and I just love Border Lights for it’s deep-dive into “that delicious dark-eyed myth” of 1950’s Mexico where folk got high on cheap dreams and rum. There are countless Okies “hopped up on moonshine and amphetamines” in Bakersfield – turns out its yet another nod, this time to Gram Parsons and Buck Owens. Russell is such a wide-eyed writer with a love of recognising his own heroes and influences.
To some this may be a tough listen. At times it’s tuneless as recitations are made, but for me the whole package is an experience rarely found on record. Russell is a born storyteller, and this, essentially, is at the core of Hotwalker. It’s brave, but I wouldn’t think Tom gives a fuck. He pursues his art, and Hotwalker is certainly art. Live, this man is compelling too. A wonderful, cult discovery!
Top track trio:
Bukowski 2 “on the hustle”