`Roots rock' spokesman takes tunes to Naperville
BEACON-NEWS - Apr 30, 1992 Section: SPOTLIGHT, page: E1
Byline: Steve Lord,
Tom Russell prefers to let his music do the talking.
The affable Russell, when asked to describe the sound of his
multi-influenced band, shies away from verbal description.
"Listen to the music," he said. "It's always better to listen to the
Fox Valley residents will get a chance to listen to Russell's music when he
performs at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Little Theater at Naperville Central
High School. The band is half of a double bill which also features
Arranmore, an folk band with Irish roots.
It is a little harder to describe Russell's sound, which combines country,
folk, rock, Appalachian fiddle, Cajun and even Tex-Mex. Russell, when
pressed, throws his music under the large umbrella of "roots rock" -- music
influenced and shaped by the same country, blues, rhythm and blues and folk
roots which shaped American rock 'n' roll.
"That term is the safest bet," Russell said recently, in a telephone
interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Some call it Western beat;
that's sort of a new name for it."
Western beat from a New Yorker? Don't be fooled. Russell, who admits only to being in his late '30s, is a transplanted westerner, having grown up in
Los Angeles in the 1950s. He was heavily influenced by the L.A. country
scene, the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and the legendary Merle Haggard, and continued today by the likes of Dwight Yoakam.
"Anyone who does songwriting has to cite Merle Haggard," Russell said.
"He's like Beethoven. He's probably written more songs, legendary songs,
than anyone. There's nobody in that category today in country."
Merle Haggard always noted that Los Angeles country musicians were freer to
experiment than their counterparts in Nashville, where a more pop country
formula ruled. Russell agrees.
"People don't know the history of L.A.," Russell said. "The most
authoritative country music came out of California or Texas."
Russell's personal background added to his country roots. He was raised in
suburban Los Angeles, but said his father was involved in ranching before
becoming a construction contractor. His older brother, still a cowboy who
runs a ranch on the West Coast, started Russell on his music career.
"He had a Spanish guitar," Russell said. "He kind of whetted my appetite
for music. But he couldn't carry a tune, so I ripped the guitar away from
His latest release, on Rounder Records, is called Cowboy Real, an acoustic
tribute to cowboy music, which features several duets between Russell and
Ironically, Russell is more popular in Europe, Scandinavia and Canada than
in America. People in those areas are interested in the folk history of
American music, much more so than Americans, Russell said.
"They know our history there," he said. "But the United States is the worst
place to hear roots, because we're under this tremendous American pop
umbrella. Radio formats are terrible. You have to dig to find roots
While his latest release is acoustic, Russell will be with his band Friday,
which means his show will feature a little something for everyone, from
songs such as Blue Wing, a folksy-ballad, and Gallo Di Cielo. Both are
songs which tell a story, a Russell trademark. He may even sing Outbound
Plane, a song he wrote which currently is on country charts, performed by