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Tom Russell

The Long Way Around – 1997 (HighTone)

Reviewed by Joel Bernstein

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CDs by Tom Russell

Tom Russell is one of those lines-in-the-sand that separates the two breeds of country music fans. In the mainstream field, he is almost totally unknown even though one of his songs ("Outbound Plane") was a Top Ten hit (for Suzy Bogguss). Amongst alternative minded fans of singer-songwriters, Russell is deservedly something of an icon. He has a deceptively rangy voice that - like Johnny Cash's - gets a tremendous amount of expressiveness out of a seemingly limited instrument.

And his lyrics make him one of America's finest storytellers. Russell's latest album provides new versions - live or studio - of his greatest songs, and brings in guest artists Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Iris Dement and Katy Moffatt. Some of it works beautifully (Dement and Gilmore seem to have been born to sing Russell's songs). Most of it works at least decently. The only major dud is a slightly bombastic live version of "Haley's Comet" that overwhelms the subtle power of the lyric.

If you're not familiar with Russell's work, this is a great place to start. If you already own all these songs, these new versions are still well worth getting.