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Tom Russell

Folk Hotel – 2017 (Frontera)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by Tom Russell

Tom Russell may well be America's most prolific, relatively unknown songwriter with over 40 albums. Yet, his recent string of albums, most notably his 2015 epic masterpiece "Rose of Roscrae," had many take notice, posing the question of what he'd do for an encore. So, this year Russell turned out the acclaimed "Play On More - The Songs of Ian and Sylvia" and this, which Russell feels is the best of his career. Most of the album was written and initially recorded in strip down solo fashion in a farmhouse in Switzerland where Russell spends time with his Swiss wife. Russell later called on his trusty cohorts in both Europe and the States to build out the sound. Among the players are Italian guitarist Max De Bernardi and familiar names from Texas including Mark Hallman, Eliza Gilkyson, Augie Meyers, Joe Ely, Joel Guzman and Redd Volkaert.

Including the bonus material, there are 13 original Russell stories herein as he mostly hearkened back to his early days as part of the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village, albeit with a Tex-Mex tinge.

It's not long though before those western tales, long associated with Russell, appear. "Leaving El Paso," "I'll Never Leave These Old Horses" and "The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence" are chock full of the western imagery that's vintage Russell.

The drinking songs and rich character portraits of "All on a Belfast Morning," "The Dram House on Gutter Lane" and "Harlan Clancy" serve as a counter balance. There's the clamoring for John F. Kennedy's return in "Rise Up, Handsome Johnny" and remembrance in "Last Time I Saw Hank."

And, unlike many albums, the two bonus tracks here are among the best of the fare as Russell duets with Joe Ely on a slower-paced Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." The tale of Lightnin' Hopkins and a white blues singer ("Grover Lewis") in "Scars on His Ankles" follows. Russell's lyrical attention to detail is among the best. His stories are worth hearing.