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Tom Russell

The Man From God Knows Where – 1999 (HighTone)

Reviewed by Robert Wooldridge

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CDs by Tom Russell

This is singer-songwriter Tom Russell's musical attempt to connect with his family's past, from the immigrant experience back to Ireland. While the album is successful song-wise, both written by Russell and others, it could have benefitted from a tighter focus on the songs and less of a concept album approach.

Russell kicks the album off nicely with the title track, sung from the point of view of his namesake who was hanged in 1798 during the United Irish Rebellion. Iris Dement follows with an effective rendition of the standard "Wayfaring Stranger," and a duet with Russell on "Patrick Russell," about another Irish ancestor. Subtitled "An Immigrant Song Cycle" the album tends to wander as other guests appear. While Delores Keane and Kari Bremmers add lovely vocals, some listeners may have a problem with Dave Van Ronk's voice, somewhere between Mel Brooks and Shel Silverstein, though he is effective on "The Outcast."

The album works best on tunes performed by Russell and Dement. They duet on "Throwing Horseshoes at the Moon," Russell's affectionate though harshly honest portrait of father as a gambler and alcoholic who manages to retain his pride throughout his ordeals. Other standout tracks include "Sitting Bull in Venice," in which the degradation of appearing in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show is seen through the eyes of Sitting Bull, and David Massengill's "Rider On An Orphan Train," in which the singer longs to see his brother from whom he was separated in his youth.Though this may have an occasional misstep, the quality of the songs makes Russell's musical journey well worth taking.