The US-Mexican border is an 800-mile musical frontier unlike any other, a land of cowboy troubadours, mariachi bands, desert rock and narcocorridos – literally “drug ballads”, a by-product of the vicious drug wars that have blighted border cities such as Juarez.
At first sight Tom Russell is an unlikely chronicler of this contentious, porous, blood-soaked boundary. The LA-born singer-songwriter, 58, is urbane and witty, closer in spirit to Tom Lehrer than Cormac McCarthy. He paints, has written detective stories, once worked as a cab driver in New York and briefly taught criminology in Nigeria. His songs have been covered by singers ranging from Johnny Cash to KD Lang but he has never made the breakthrough from cult to mainstream. Considering his interest in outcasts and rebels perhaps he’s happy that way.
His latest album, Mesabi, takes its name from the Minnesotan iron range near Bob Dylan’s childhood home. Russell opened with a slow version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna-Fall” before segueing into the chugging blue-collar rock of Mesabi’s title track. His voice was a dramatic vibrato, painting in bold tones verses that travelled southwards from Dylan’s hometown, the “Bethlehem of the troubadour kid”, to Russell’s own upbringing in 1960s California, a boy dreaming of Tijuana and “the dark-eyed ladies in the cowboy songs”.
Mesabi’s guests are a Who’s Who of modern Americana: Calexico, Gretchen Peters, Lucinda Williams. At Cecil Sharp House, however, Russell played acoustic guitar with a single accompanist, the guitarist Thad Beckman, whose ornate, Latinate harmonies brought to life the Tex-Mex borderland where Russell currently lives, in El Paso, over the frontier from Juarez.
“Furious Love (For Liz)” was a waltz about a visit Liz Taylor paid to Juarez when it was an exotic destination for thrill-seeking northerners. “And God Created Border Towns” lamented the city’s present-day takeover by execution squads, a place where, in Russell’s vivid description, “the devil wears a ski mask”.
This was complex ground for a North American songwriter to cover, but Russell did so with a skilful mix of mourning, outrage, noirishness, nostalgia and black humour. The music lost a bit of colour with the absence of the mariachi trumpets and accordion of the recorded songs; yet Beckman’s versatile guitar-playing did much to compensate.
A cast of other characters emerged in the songs – “Sterling Hayden” was a superb portrait of the tough-guy actor, wracked with remorse for “finking” to the McCarthy Commission – but the US-Mexican frontier remained the main focus. A recurrent theme was the gap between the area’s entwined musical legacy and its social and political inequalities, building to the magnificent closer “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” – a rousing satire about anti-Mexican hysteria in US southern states that would have done Woody Guthrie proud.