Artist: Tom Russell
Album: The Rose Of Roscrae
Release Date: 04/14/2015
The word “epic” is often overused, but in the case of Tom Russell, it practically becomes his trademark. This massive project, spanning two discs, 52 tracks and three hours of listening, is the third in a trilogy of folk operas that began with 1999’s The Man From God Knows Where. The Rose Of Roscrae is similar in its Celtic and American West tales, although the refrain of “The man from God knows where” becomes “This is the last frontier,” and the new album has even more contributions from Americana luminaries. While the second album in the trilogy, 2005’s less accessible Hot Walker, recounted both iconic and obscure characters from American art, film and literature, this appealing folk opera is ambitious in geographic scope, culture—both real and imagined—and features the voices of Lead Belly, Johnny Cash, Walt Whitman paired with contemporaries like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Jimmy LaFave, Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson, Maura O’Connell and co-producer Barry Walsh (and this is only a small portion of the total cast).
The album’s first act covers the protagonist, Johnny Sutton, falling in love with Rose Malloy (Rose of Roscrae), then fleeing from Ireland to the American West, first becoming a cowboy and then the outlaw “Johnny Behind-the-Deuce.” He eventually lures Rose to America but abandons her, returning to the outlaw life. Act two shows Rose’s perspective, and features a number of female vocalists, especially Maura O’Connell, in the part of Rose. Through its various twists and turns, Johnny and Rose return to Ireland as friends, not lovers.
The story lines are woven together and filled with traditional Western tunes like “Home on the Range” and traditional Irish fare like “Carrickfergus” and “The Water is Wide.” Russell also reprises versions of two his best songs: “Gallo del Cielo” (sung by Joe Ely) and “Guadalupe” (sung by Gretchen Peters). “I Talk to God,” “When the Wolves No Longer Sing,” “Doin’ Hard Time in Texas” and the title track will eventually join his rich legacy.
From folk music and a few rockers to large orchestral arrangements to simple narrative snippets, you could call this a masterpiece but that may not do it justice; this is breathtaking work from one of America’s best songwriters. If you make this your introduction to Russell, you can’t go wrong.