So this is what it comes to: Shout Factory does Hightone's songwriters. For those who don't know, Oakland, CA's defunct Hightone Records was a small independent that focused on blues -- its debut release was Robert Cray's Bad Influence in 1983 -- and eventually spread itself to include all kinds of roots music including, country, rockabilly, and the music that walked in between. While the other two volumes in this series focus on single discs by Dave Alvin and Buddy Miller -- two artists who came to be synonymous with the label -- Tom Russell is the dark horse, the most restless and surly of songwriters who has made a career of positioning himself as an outsider, and whether he really enjoys that distinction or not is debatable, but he is one nonetheless. He's written songs for Ian Tyson and Nanci Griffith (both of whom appear here, among others) and many others. His career dates back further to the mid-'70s and is entirely on display in this fine, 37-track, two-disc anthology. This collection begins with a tribute to the late Gram Parsons called " Joshua Tree" (long before there were tributes to Parsons) with Patricia Hardin, a singer and pianist whom Russell recorded a pair of albums with. There's also the nugget "One and One," a duet with Shawn Colvin released four year before her own debut album. Most of the rest of disc one is filled with selections the Tom Russell Band issued on Rounder's miniscule Philo subsidiary, and comprise much of his best known material, from "U.S. Steel," and "Navajo Rug" to "Outbound Plane" and "Veteran's Day." Russell and Tyson perform his signature tune, "Galle del Cielo," here. There are 20 cuts on disc one, including "Angel of Lyon," a track written by Russell and the rambling itinerant songman Steve Young.
Disc two focuses exclusively on the material Russell issued for Hightone, and features many of his finest moments as a writer and performer including "Sky Above, Mud Below," "The Death of Jimmy Martin," and the brilliant, "The Pugilist at 59," which brings us the best of the American short story tradition in song form. One can hear the ghosts of Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and Sherwood Anderson in the verses and choruses. Longtime Russell fans debate the Hightone material, and compare it endlessly to his live performances and his Philo catalog. But that doesn't matter so much. Most everything here fills out the portrait of an artist who aims at bigger than life but only finds solace outside its rules. Only the listener can decide if he succeeds, but whatever that judgment, one thing is indisputable: Russell is a true original. He is among the last of an aging -- and sometimes dying -- breed, who has roamed the nation, read its books, followed its various heritages in life, art, and history, and chronicled that history in their songs, blurring the lines between the personal and the archetypal. For that reason alone, this collection is worth the time of anyone who wants to hear this tradition at its best. For the longtime fan or the beginner, these songs are unlike anyone else's and thank goodness, for this is an honest to goodness look at the rambling, contentious, and sometimes uneven career of one of our own lineage song poets on the shelves. Get it before it's gone.