Take a holiday in a unique world 

Although you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia, by all accounts Tom Russell has had a more exciting life than MV.

Teaching in Nigeria? Yep. Playing music in a circus? Yeah, he’s done that too. And written a string of books, been a criminologist, oh and somewhere along the way found the time to be an award winning folk singer who’s music has been covered by Johnny Cash and is loved by Bruce Springsteen.

It is in this capacity that he is bringing us “Folk Hotel” a new album of 12 original songs and a cover of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and it is quite brilliant.

Brilliant because no one writes songs with this kind of imagery and this level of intricacy is seldom in folk, nor does it ever sound this weather-worn.

From the dry as dust openings of “Up In The Old Hotel” with its sparse accordion accompaniment, the way Russell colours his characters is a thing of total beauty.

The Mexican influences shine through on “Leaving El Paso”, while “I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses” is mournful brilliance.

For a man of such poetic dexterity, it is perhaps a natural step to write a song for Dylan Thomas and “The Sparrow Of Swansea” finds a way to re-tell the story and combine it with a genuine singalong chorus.

One of the best things about the record – and there are many – is the way these songs wander where they need to. The spoken work intro to “All On A Belfast Morning” segues superbly into a cracked and unusual tale that involves peanut butter sandwiches and communists in the same verse. And if no one else writes songs like this, then its only because they haven’t thought of it.

Recorded in Texas, there is something of the traditional country dustbowl about “Rise Again Handsome Johnny”, but as wonderful as that song is, it – like everything else here – has to bow down to the quite incredible “Harlan Clancy” ,pitting you right in the midst of the US heartland – but still retaining an everyman quality.

If the capacity to parachute you straight into worlds you don’t understand but can absolutely identify with is something only the very best lyricists possess then Russell definitely has it. ”The Last Time I Saw Hank” for example is unlike anything anywhere else, and likewise “The Light Beyond The Coyote Fence” is full of world-weary imagery which might ostensibly be about life on the road, but it will strike a chord with anyone who wishes for more.

The gruff delivery works perfectly on “The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane” and “The Rooftops Of Copenhagen” eschews the need for singing altogether to talk its way through one of the finest stories you will encounter anywhere.

One of the bonus tracks – “Scars On His Ankles” recalls the greats of Delta Blues and still finds the find to be nearly 10 minutes of something mighty. Lightning Hopkins – one of the characters in the wonderful song – would approve.

Folk, blues, country, poetry, call this whatever you want. The truth is it is all of these things, but so much more. Tom Russell has many people jealous of his talents, wishing they could do this too, but he’s largely without peer.

A five-star hotel if ever there was one.

Rating 9.5/10

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