Tom Russell is a storyteller.
He’s been dubbed the John Steinbeck of country music and when you hear him play it’s easy to figure out why.
Russell’s lyrics are vivid tales that conjure images of western farmers’ fields, open highways and Beat poets.
He sings about “beautiful trouble” — about hard drinking and women and dimly lit bars on the Mexican border.
Russell has an easy-going, tell-it-like-it-is attitude that comes through in the way he speaks and the way he sings. His sound is a mixture of Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Lou Reed.
Tuesday Russell was in Whitehorse playing a cozy noontime concert preview under dimmed lights at Steve’s Music Shop on Fourth Avenue.
He strummed and sang a dozen songs for a packed house of 40 spellbound listeners.
Later in the evening, Russell took the Yukon Arts Centre stage for a Valentine’s Day performance.
“Well, it’s not often you get to have one of your personal musical idols in town,” said Yukon Arts Centre artistic director Eric Epstein, who introduced Russell to the crowd.
The country singer/songwriter took the stage at Steve’s Music in faded blue jeans and dark sunglasses.
The tan cowboy boots on his feet tapped out the beats as he strummed a gold-rimmed acoustic guitar with a finely tooled red leather strap slung over his shoulder.
He played Blue Wing, a song about a man in prison with a blue tattoo.
Russell credits the song with saving him during a riot when he played a maximum-security prison in Edmonton.
“It calmed them right down,” he said with a laugh.
He rounded out the show with a tune from Joe Ely called Me and Billy the Kid, which his girlfriend made him learn.
“My girlfriend heard Joe Ely and decided she wasn’t that into me anymore,” he joked before he started strumming the tongue-in-cheek, gunslinger’s song.
He ended with his favourite tune, A Touch of Evil, about a 1958 film starring Orson Wells and Marlene Dietrich, about a “love life that goes to hell.”
Russell’s songs have been recorded by music greats Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson to name a few.
He has lived and played in cities all over the world including a stint strumming in the strip bars on Skid Row in Vancouver. Now he makes his home in El Paso, Texas — on the Mexico border.
This is his second time in Whitehorse.
“I was up here in ’93 but I don’t remember much,” he jokes. “I don’t remember last week in Alberta but it went real well.”
Now in his 50s, the country legend has recorded 18 — count ‘em, 18 — albums of original material.
And he’s currently working on the 19th — a new album dubbed Love and Fear to be released sometime this year.