Tom Russell's Sound and Vision

Americana pioneer Tom Russell may be most widely known for his songwriting, which includes such classics as “Gallo del Cielo” and “Spanish Burgundy,” but his artistry spans across media. In addition to recording more than 20 albums, Russell has published a detective novel and a book of letters with poet Charles Bukowski, and is currently completing a documentary about his sister-in-law that will serve as the third installment of his "Americana Trilogy."

He's also an avid painter, and when he comes through Austin tomorrow to play the Cactus Café, he'll visit the Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress for the opening exhibition of his latest folk art. Entitled “Aztec Jazz,” the series serves as Russell’s tribute to the Mexican jazz musicians killed in a 1953 bus crash. The portraits cast his subjects in fluid impressionistic strokes, evocative and almost dreamlike in blunted pastels.

“Painting and songwriting are very closely tied to me, emotionally, and in a lot of other ways that are hard to explain,” says Russell from his ranch in El Paso. “They have mystical elements to them. You can hear a good song and want to hear it again and again and it doesn't tire for you. You can see a Van Gogh painting and want to see it again and again, and see different things. That doesn't really hold true with creative writing, poetry, and novels. Sure, you go back and re-read novels, but you don't read a poem 200 times. So there's always been a link between painting and songwriting, and it's mysterious to talk about, but it doesn't surprise me that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and a dozen other great songwriters are also sort of painters on the side. It must come from the same part of the brain, and that ability to stand outside of time and create something.”

Though creatively linked, Russell adheres to a strict regimen to keep the two art forms separate. Mornings are devoted solely to songwriting, while evenings often find him painting in his studio.

“With writing songs, you go into a state that's different than the state of time we're normally in,” he proffers. “It's a definite thing linked to singing, and a language that is very different from our day to day spoken language and extremely different from poetry and novels. It's a mystical, ancient language that goes back to the troubadours. It's a way of speaking to people and jerking them out of time, if it's a good song.

“Painting is very similar because when I paint I lose track of time,” Russell continues. “It's a state of timelessness that creating art takes you to. Painting and songwriting are similar in that way, but they're a little bit different, too. This singing-up a language is what songwriting is all about, and painting is obviously a little bit more visual.

“They ruined it in a lot of ways when they started the video revolution 18 years ago because they over-visualized songs, and country music especially. They watered down the listeners’ ability to visualize it on their own, which is what it's all about. Songs are very visual things that are outside our grasp. It's such a weird, elusive thing, the creative part of songwriting.”

Before his show at the Cactus Café tomorrow night, catch Russell at the Yard Dog for the opening reception, 6:30 – 8:30pm. He'll also perform some songs and have available his latest album, Lost Angels of Lyon, a 1989 live recording with his full backing band in France.

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