The Grammy Awards were handed out last Monday and, once again, Tom Russell did not receive an award. In fact, while Lady Gaga was channeling David Bowie on the big Staples Center stage in Los Angeles, Russell was preparing for a concert the next night at a club called the Lille Ole Bull in Bergen, Sweden.
Lady Gaga is undeniably talented — just ask her occasional duet partner, Tony Bennett — and Bowie broke new ground in rock and roll, but Russell should be considered no less consequential in the world of music. He has been called “one of the best singer-songwriters of our time” by the Washington Post, and he and Dave Alvin are credited with “creating” the Americana genre after producing a Merle Haggard tribute CD during the 1990s (and recently reissued). Yet Russell remains largely an outsider, highly respected by his “Americana” peers, but totally under the radar of pop music.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons I love Russell’s music. Perhaps that’s why the iconoclastic David Letterman loves it, too, and had Russell on his late-night program several times.
Of course, being a wine guy, I was all ears whenever a “wine lyric,” no matter how seemingly inconsequential, found its way into a Russell song. Tom demonstrated astute knowledge of how wide wine’s quality spectrum is when, in the song “Stealing Electricity,” he wrote: “He’s deader than yesterday’s communion wine.”
Check out his performance of that song on Letterman below.
More recently, on “The Rose of Roscrae” CD, Russell devoted an entire song to wine. In it, he references the Russian River growing region of Sonoma County, and even mentions how the breeze off the ocean kisses the Chardonnay grapes, and how the oak and the apple flavors are intertwined in the wine. Ultimately, however, it’s a love song, as these lyrics demonstrate:
Lord can you tell me where love goes
When it slips away?
Leaving nothing behind
But white lies and cold Chardonnay?
Here’s a toast to survival
To all those that love’s left behind
In the bars and back alleys… and bedrooms
We’re just partners in crime.
But we stole a moment of bliss
from this ol’ midnight wine.
You can see Russell perform “Midnight Wine” below.
I see Russell perform every chance I get. The most recent opportunity was last June at a venue not far from Staples Center but infinitely smaller: McCabe’s in Santa Monica, Calif. McCabe’s is a guitar store by day and a tiny music venue by night. The place was packed, and the aforementioned Dave Alvin even put in an appearance to sing a couple of songs that he and Russell had written together.
My bride has become a big fan, so we snapped the accompanying photo after the show, and having the new “Rose of Roscrae” CD autographed.
Then it was time to head home, and to pour a few glasses of midnight wine.