Country and folk singer-songwriter Tom Russell to perform at Lobero
Tom Russell recalls the time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter got into his cab.
“I got a call to pick up a guy in front of a theater,” Mr. Russell told the News-Press about his days driving a taxi during the early 1980s in New York City. “I saw the name on the marquee: Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist doing a solo act. I went, ‘Wow.’
“I picked him up, and we’re doing the normal business thing when you don’t talk much,” Mr. Russell said. “He was nice, had been drinking a little Jack Daniels.
“He asked me what else I did. I told him I wrote songs,” Mr. Russell said. “He said, ‘Sing me one of your songs.’”
Mr. Russell, a Los Angeles native and UCSB graduate who taught in Nigeria, did so, and that started an adventure in which Mr. Russell drove Mr. Hunter to Mr. Russell’s house that night to pick up a cassette of that song.
And with that, Mr. Russell was back in the music business, with Mr. Hunter singing Mr. Russell’s “Gallo del Cielo” at his concerts. Mr. Hunter also invited Mr. Russell to perform with him on stage.
Since then, Mr. Russell has made his voice heard as an award-winning singer/songwriter known for his country and folk music and maybe just as importantly, songs inspired by his personal adventures.
Like the time he and his brother Pat and their friend Billy faced armed rustlers in San Luis Obispo. More about that later.
“Definitely, there are little snatches here and there. You’ve got to have a hook line and a rhyme,” Mr. Russell told the News-Press about his life unfolding in his songs such as those on his 2019 album, “October in the Railroad Earth.”
“You can take pieces of your life, and they become important enough to add a few rhymes and a hook,” Mr. Russell said. “I think I am telling my story.”
A Santa Barbara audience will hear Mr. Russell do just that when he performs at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
“I grew up listening to my brother’s records of Johnny Cash and country music and old Hank Williams records,” Mr. Russell told the News-Press by phone from his home outside Round Rock in central Texas. “I got heavily into folk music, especially Bob Dylan, who I got to see several times at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and the Hollywood Bowl.”
The singer, guitarist and songwriter earned his master’s in sociology and criminology in the late 1960s at UCSB, and he went on to teach in Ibadan, Nigeria, during the Biafran War.
“It’s been an interesting trek down the road in different countries,” Mr. Russell told the News-Press about his life. “I’ve been able to write songs and make a living, which is a blessing.”
Mr. Russell started his career in music in the early 1970s in Vancouver, B.C., playing Skid Row bars. He later moved to Texas and formed a band with singer-pianist Patricia Hardin, and in the late 1970s, they moved to San Francisco.
After ending the musical partnership with Ms. Hardin, Mr. Russell moved in 1980 to New York City, where he drove taxis, met Mr. Hunter and got back into the music business with guitarist Andrew Hardin, who wasn’t related to Patricia. The Tom Russell Band performed and recorded four albums between 1984 and 1994, and Mr. Russell recorded solo albums, including one he briefly discussed with the News-Press, “The Man From God Knows Where.”
“I took the words of my ancestors who traveled from Ireland to the U.S.A. and ended up in Wisconsin and Iowa,” he said.
His other notable albums included “Rose of Roscrae,” which has been described as a Western folk opera.
Mr. Russell described his 2019 album, “October in the Railroad Earth,” as “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield.”
Among the album’s songs are “Highway 46,” a reference to the highway in Bakersfield and a tribute to country legends who lived in the city, such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
As a tribute to Johnny Cash, Mr. Russell ends “October in the Railroad Earth” with “Wreck of the Old 97,” a traditional trainwreck song.
“Johnny recorded a song of mine called ‘Veterans Day,’” Mr. Russell recalled. “I ran into him at a festival in Switzerland, and he got me up on stage to sing ‘Peace in the Valley.’
“He was singing the lyrics into my right ear. It came out of my mouth, and I was sounding like Johnny Cash’s ventriloquist dummy,” Mr. Russell said, chuckling.
Mr. Cash stopped in the lobby of the hotel where he and Mr. Russell were staying in Switzerland and wanted to see Mr. Russell, who was sleeping in his room upstairs.
“The band was really nervous. Johnny kept saying, ‘Where’s Tom? Where’s Tom?’” Mr. Russell said. “The fiddle player called and said, ‘Get down here. Johnny’s asking for you.’ I got dressed really quick.
“He was very cordial, very nice, and we got into an intimate discussion about songwriting,” Mr. Russell recalled.
He talked about the experience that inspired his song, “Billy, Pass Me The Gun.”
“My brother Pat is a livestock contractor in California,” Mr. Russell said. “I was a year out of UCSB. I went to Cuesta College (in San Luis Obispo) to get my grades back up before I went back to UCSB.”
Mr. Russell was staying with his brother when Pat looked out the window and saw men firing a gun and poaching cattle late at night.
“He grabbed a gun and said, ‘Get in the truck. We have to go after these people,’” Mr. Russell said. “We went down the road in his truck, going about 80 miles per hour. He went to pick up his partner, Billy.
“He forgot the gun outside the truck back at the house,” Mr. Russell recalled. “We got out there and got behind those characters, who were straight out of James Dickey’s ‘Deliverance.’”
The men pulled over outside San Luis Obispo and pointed their guns at Mr. Russell, Pat and BIlly, who were in Pat’s truck.
“Pat says, ‘Pass me the gun, Billy.’ Billy says, ‘Pat, we ain’t got no gun.’
“I was just shaking and got below the dashboard,” Mr. Russell said. “We got out of there. My brother called the cops.”
No shots were fired, and Mr. Russell, Pat and Billy survived the experience. But Mr. Russell knew there was a story to tell.
“I knew there was a song there,” Mr. Russell said.
Mr. Russell’s song “Pass Me the Gun, Billy” is among the songs on the singer’s “October in the Railroad Earth” album.
Mr. Russell said he is halfway through producing an album of new songs.
“I don’t know what makes you a great songwriter, but it’s continuing with a catalog of interest that keeps growing thematically.”