Songwriter Tom Russell has ranged as far afield as Ireland and Norway, and not just in his stories--the 1999 album The Man From God Knows Where, which draws on his great-grandfathers' diaries and retraces his family's journey to America, was recorded in a farmhouse near Hardanger Fjord. But on Borderland (Hightone), due out this week, he stays close to El Paso, Texas, where he moved four years ago: the music is adorned with mariachi horns, wheezing norteño accordions, and Spanish-tinged acoustic guitars, and the lyrics almost all seem to be about dividing lines, whether between countries or people. In "Down the Rio Grande" a man follows his lover through dusty rainstorms and baking sun, only to pull up short at the river, looking across at a Mexico that seems half promised land and half purgatory; meanwhile Russell's gentle, insistent fingerpicking evokes the rhythm of the highway beneath car wheels and the beating of a heart. The border guard of "California Snow," in despair about his broken family, is also haunted by memories of the men and women he pursues. And in the up-tempo country rocker "When Sinatra Played Juarez," an old man reminisces about the lawless glory days of that Mexican border town. But Russell's forte is the brooding, mescal-sodden ballad: "Touch of Evil" uses Orson Welles's 1958 film classic as a framework, connecting episodes from a couple's disintegration with scenes in the movie. The lyric imagery can get a little precious ("I grew up near those dead canals where they filmed the longest pan shot ever made"), but the doomed wretch at the song's heart is a riveting character--he asks his woman, "Why don't you touch me anymore?" and then escapes to a Juarez cantina to raise a glass "to Orson and the touch of evil livin' in our souls." Friday, April 13, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. Saturday, April 14, 9 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andow Studio.