Tom Russell's 'Blood And Candle Smoke'

Host Scott Simon talks to singer-songwriter Tom Russell about his latest album, Blood and Candle Smoke.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tom Russell has been telling stories through his music for nearly four decades and has recorded more than 20 albums, and he says that was just act one. Tom Russell's latest CD is "Blood and Candle Smoke" and it comes a quarter century after his debut release "Heart on a Sleeve." Mr. Russell says this newest album is also the start of act two of his career. He joins us now from El Paso, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. TOM RUSSELL (Singer): Thanks for having me. It's great to hear your voice.

SIMON: So, how is this new phase different?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, all the records have been different. I did a record years ago called "The Man From God Knows Where" about my people coming from Norway and Ireland. I've done cowboy records, I've done rock and roll records, and I really stopped a few years ago and told myself there's no way to inch forward as an artist unless you try a little harder for a newer sound and for some deeper places in your writing.

And I stopped, I listened to what was happening out there in so-called world folk music. I was very impressed with bands like Calexico and Neko Case, Iron and Wine. And I noticed that a lot of those records came out of one studio in Tucson called Wave Lab. So, I aimed towards that and ended up in Tucson recording this record.

SIMON: Well, point us to something on the album, if you could.

Mr. RUSSELL: For instance, "Santa Ana Wind," which is about the ill wind that blows across the west from Death Valley to Los Angeles and causes all those wildfires sometimes. And Joan Didion - am I pronouncing her name right?

SIMON: I think it's Didion but...

Mr. RUSSELL: Didion wrote about it quite a bit in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and I love her nonfiction stuff.

(Soundbite of song "Santa Ana Winds")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) And as those Santa Ana winds begin to blow, from Death Valley to the wide Pacific shore, won't be no saints come marching in, no movie stars or clergymen. Where will you run when that wind howls 'neath your door? When that Santa Ana wind begins to roar...

Calexico came in and gave it a six-eighth beat, kind of a jazzy upbeat waltz tempo that they do well and took it into more of a Latino feel. And then we added Jacob Valenzuela on the trumpet, a very young, incredible Mexican trumpet player who references New Orleans jazz and mariachi music and banda music. So, Calexico really reframed that song into more of a modern world folk song.

SIMON: It sounds like you're really trying to mix things up.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think there's two main things happening today in the world from my perspective as a music fan. I think there are a lot of these young groups like Calexico, Iron and Wine, the Fleet Foxes, Neko Case, who, because of the Internet, can reference world sounds instantly and put it into their music.

The drawback, I think with a lot of younger bands, is the core of the music, the song, isn't there for me. Then on the other side of the spectrum, the old masters, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Merle Haggard, are still out there drawing more and more people to their concerts, singing a lot of their old catalog but drawing new, newer younger fans.

These two things are happening out there in the world. But in between, there's a huge gap where there's no good new writing being accomplished from my perspective. And into that gap, I throw blood and candle smoke.

SIMON: You spent some time teaching in Nigeria in the 1960s?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, I graduated in the late 1960s from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in the sociology of law and basically criminology.

(Soundbite of song "Criminology")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) I had a gun pointed at my head on several occasions. Yeah, Nadine, I was scared. Something about a black man with a machine gun make you wish you said your prayers. It was Nigeria, the year was 1969...

I worked under a great radical professor named Bill Chambliss, and he got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to teach criminology in Africa. He asked me to go along as a student teacher.

(Soundbite of song "Criminology")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) In Apache Pass, Prince Rupert, Injun Jack puts a gun to my head. He said how you like it now, gentlemen? How's your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death? It was Canada this time...

It was during the Biafran war, and there were a lot of guns pointed in our direction at roadblocks and situations like that. It was just recently that those memories of West Africa came to the surface. I reference a lot of that in these songs, "Criminology" and "East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam."

(Soundbite of song "Criminology")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) ...you might think I'm some jive folk singer, no. I'm a master in the art of criminology...

SIMON: And what did you learn teaching in Nigeria?

Mr. RUSSELL: I learned I didn't want to hang around the academic scene because I had studied criminology because of an emotional desire and an intellectual desire to learn about street-level problems, you know, crime basically. And I realize that these people weren't hanging out on the street. They were hanging out in an academic place that was a vacuum to me and that was going to be my life forever.

And I just - I didn't feel it was a place where I could accomplish much and be comfortable. And I began playing more and more guitar. I learned that basic fact that I wanted to change my career, and I finally made the decision to go that route.

SIMON: A song here I want to ask you about, "Nina Simone."

(Soundbite of song "Nina Simone")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) It was down in San Cristobal, that I first heard the sound of Nina's voice on the jukebox, spinning darkly around...

You know, I heard Nina Simone when I was a kid. My folks played jazz and R&B and I thought that's what it was, you know, R&B. And then about 20 years ago, I was traveling through Mexico, I was alone and feeling sorry for myself. And I rolled into a town called San Cristobal de las Casas.

Walking down a back street, I heard this sound coming out of a window of a bookstore owned by an American, by the way, and it was an LP of Nina Simone singing Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," and it chilled me. I got chills. It's when you're in an exotic place and you hear something intensely for the first time you didn't hear that way before. And I became a huge Nina Simone fan and realized, as somebody said, she was a very, very deep folk singer at heart.

(Soundbite of song "Nina Simone")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) Yeah, we've all been to hell and come back, where love cut us right down to the bone, but walking beside us is Nina Simone...

I was transformed in that moment and that's what the song's about.

SIMON: How does a song come to you?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, at this point of the game, I have to work a little harder than I did 30 years ago when you rely almost totally on what we call the muse. Now, I try to write every day, whether it's prose, essays that I'm working on or a couple of books. And it took me four years to write these songs, but I didn't stop till I was 100 percent sure that I had 12 that I wanted to sing for the rest of my life.

SIMON: Mr. Russell, thanks so much.

Mr. RUSSELL: Thank you very much for your time.

SIMON: Tom Russell, his new album, "Blood and Candle Smoke."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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