Raised on Country: Tom Russell at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre
From Teaching in Africa to Cab Driving in New York, Tom Russell Does it All
Raised on folk and country genres, Tom Russell is bringing his music — shaped by his growing up in Los Angeles, studying at UCSB, traveling to West Africa to teach, playing honky-tonk bars in Canada, cab driving in New York City, playing at a Puerto Rican carnival, and writing a song covered by Johnny Cash — to Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre.
While studying sociology and criminology in college, Russell met his mentor, Bill Chambliss.
“We listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen … he also played guitar a little bit at UCSB for fun. So we played Leonard Cohen songs and passed the guitar around.”
Russell’s career as a singer-songwriter began when his mentor got a Rockefeller Foundation grant to teach in West Africa. He hired Russell as a student-teacher, and there, during the Biafran War, Russell began to play music more and more. His song “East of Woodstock West of Vietnam” is based on his time there.
“[It’s] about going to West Africa, meeting a white priestess named Suzanne Wenger, collecting African art, and reading a lot of Graham Greene.”
Upon his return from Africa, Russell found his way to west Canada, where he would form country bands to play in honky-tonk bars, sometimes for eight hours a night. That’s when he really started to write music, not just play.
“I was on stage for six to eight hours a night. We were aware there were bands like Creedence Clearwater, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles were still going, the Kinks…. It was amazing to be around that time when so many bands were creating classic music that you knew was going to last forever.”
The emerging songwriter scene brought Russell to Austin in the mid-’70s, where he met Patricia Hartin, a songwriter and classical pianist from Waco. He began to write with her and recorded his first two records with her: Ring of Bone (reviewed in Rolling Stone) and Wax Museum.
And then came Robert Hunter. After Austin, Russell moved to San Francisco and then New York City, where he worked as a cab driver.
“That’s the time when I picked up Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist, one night. He was doing a solo show in Rockaway Park and I sang him a song. I didn’t think he would go for it, but I sang him a song of mine called ‘Gallo del Cielo’ about a famous rooster … and he was amazed.” The two went back to Russell’s house to get a cassette, Hunter sang the song at a festival in England, and when he came back to New York, he hired Russell to open shows for him.
“He got me back into the business for the third time.”
Back in the music business, Russell found his music being covered by artists from all over the country, and younger musicians from all over the world, including Ian Tyson, Suzy Bogguss, Nanci Griffith, Doug Sahm, Dave Allen. His cowboy-spirited music reached all different types of audiences. The biggest honor, he said, was when Johnny Cash covered his song “Veteran’s Day.” Catch Tom Russell this Friday, March 31, at the Lobero Theatre to experience the same music that so many people have had the joy of listening to, and maybe even catching a life story told by the cowboy himself. “Everything you’ve lived goes into your music. You take songs from your own life and try to find the rhyme and reason to it.”
You must be logged in to post a comment.