The first thing to say about this album is that if you intend to listen to it then best go out and buy some beers and snacks beforehand. Next, get a comfy seat, set up your audio for its best “widescreen” effect and prepare to sit through two and a half hours of prime Americana country folk opera. It’s an effort for sure to sit throughout The Rose Of Rosecrae but having done so on three occasions (along with several dips into individual songs) Blabber’n’Smoke can confidently declare that ultimately it’s an interesting and rewarding endeavour and that the album, while not quite the masterpiece that some are pronouncing, is poised to loom over competitors in year end lists.
Tom Russell is no stranger to themes and concepts with previous albums such as The Man From God Knows Where and Hotwalker comprised of songs and spoken word, sound collages and guest artists. The Rose Of Roscrae takes this to another level, it’s a full blown musical story that traces the journey of a young Irishman to America where he goes West (as young men were inclined to do) allowing Russell to include Celtic laments, talking blues, cowboy songs, square dance, slave songs, Native American chants, Gospel and Mariachi music. Weaving traditional songs, standards and his own material into his sonic tapestry Russell has engaged a luminous cast of characters using archive recordings and contemporary collaborations to flesh out the story, the list is daunting……………
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy La Fave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massingill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, The Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, Pat Manske, The Voices of the Waverley School, Pasadena, California and The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.
You get the picture.
As we said the album is a night in, the songs rolling over you. Some are snippets, over in less than a minute but like connective tissue essential to the overall sinewy aural chew. However there is sustenance galore in many of the individual songs which cleave to Russell’s familiar styles, bold and proud American folklore with sparkling guitar and Dobro providing punch and his spoken soliloquies that paint campfire pictures with tender guitar backdrop. When his hero is thinking back to his homeland Russell captures a fine Hibernian air which is best heard when Finbar Furey provides an excellent Carrickfergus/ The Water Is Wide before Russell wades in with a fierce expatriate’s memories of the Irish landscape. Throughout the album Russell deploys his “actors” as a director might with Jimmie dale Gilmore’s high lonesome voice capturing the frontier while David Olney rants magnificently as a hang ’em high judge. Meanwhile Eliza Gilkyson is a fine vocal foil to Russell on the opening songs of the second disc as does Gretchen Peters before the story heads down to Mexico allowing Augie Meyers and Joe Ely to shine.
Overall there isn’t enough space here to dig deeply into the 52 songs that comprise The Rose Of Rosecrae. Suffice to say that it’s a bold adventure and one that by and large succeeds. It’s begging for a visual accompaniment, a stage show or film gathering all of the cast (although the deceased might have to phone it in) but it’s safe to say that for those who have enjoyed Russell’s previous thematic albums this is essential. As for the others I’d recommend a deep breath, some popcorn and open ears and prepare to be astonished. Tom Russell will be appearing in Glasgow as part of Glasgow Americana in October.