The storytelling gifts that Tom Russell has brought to songs for 35 years have reached new peaks on Mesabi, another stunning album of Southwest-borderlands rock.
Russell begins this wide-ranging collection with "Mesabi," a song named for the Minnesota iron range of Bob Dylan's childhood, imagining how strongly those early influences struck young ears. Singing of the "Bethlehem of the troubadour kid," Russell also reflects on the San Joaquin Valley of his own childhood and the urge to leave it all behind.
Two years after Blood and Candle Smoke, produced at Tucson's Wavelab Studio by Craig Schumacher, Russell returns to Tucson for several of Mesabi's songs, reigniting collaboration with Schumacher and Calexico.
But Mesabi is a more-wide-ranging album in sound and lyrical scope, taking on subjects and locations ranging from Cedar Rapids to Juarez, and from James Dean to Disney child star Bobby Driscoll, whose tragic tailspin Russell weaves into the Peter Pan story that made Driscoll famous.
Despite its impeccable production and all-star cast of musicians—guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboardist Augie Meyers and pianist Van Dyke Parks—Mesabi is definitely an album of words. It's Russell's greatest strength, and he doesn't hold back. The album's chief fault is the embarrassment of riches: As these stories unfold—whether they're dense, vivid, nostalgic, bleak or even hopeful—it's best to take them one or two or three at a time.