Culture: The Man from God Knows Where; Mike Davies Makes a Break for the Border with Tom Russell, the Singer-Songwriter Supporting Nanci Griffith Tonight at the Symphony Hall

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Byline: Mike Davies

Although Nanci Griffith may be the evening's headlining star, there will be a significant number in the audience who'll be at Symphony Hall to see an all too rare UK performance by opening act, Tom Russell.

Not a familiar name perhaps, but at 51 he's been one of the most significant figures in American folk-roots music for some two decades, regarded by many as a latter-day John Stewart or a country Springsteen, whose songs have documented the lives of the everyday dreamers and losers of blue-collar America.

Growing up in the late 50s and early 60s in California where the family had a small ranch in Topanga Canyon, Russell recalls being exposed to country music and cowboys by his brother (who became a full time rancher), but also by seeing shows by such legendary folk and blues names as Mississippi John Hurt, Rambling Jack Elliot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson and the formative Dylan.

Eventually stealing his brother's guitar, he began to write his own songs, starting his music career on Vancouver's skid row country bars in 1971 backing strippers and sword swallowers before moving to Austin a couple of years later to form a duo with pianist Patricia Hardin. They released two well received albums before calling it a day in 1979 with Russell abandoning music and moving to New York with a clutch of manuscripts to make his name as a novelist.

The books never materialised, but he did keep writing songs while paying the rent working as a cab driver. One day he picked up Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead and sang him something he'd written, a Tex Mex short story about cockfighting called Gallo Del Cielo. It would become one of his best known songs and so impressed Hunter that he immediately arranged for Russell to open a series of shows for the Dead. Tom Russell singer-songwriter was back.

Through the 80s, working and recording extensively in Scandinavia where, curiously, American folk-roots music has a huge following, Russell released a clutch of albums packed with such magnificent songs as Blue Wing, Veteran's Day, Walking On The Moon (one of the world's finest love songs, co-penned with Katy Moffatt), Haley's Comet (about the death of Bill Haley), Navajo Rug (with Ian Tyson) and St Olav's Gate.

Written in Norway while he and musical partner Andrew Hardin were playing the Oslo bars, the latter would be recorded by Nanci Griffith, giving Russell his first taste of real success and leading to a collaboration with Griffith on Outbound Plane, a song which in turn became a massive 1993 US hit for country star Suzy Bogguss.

The release of the Poor Man's Dream album in 1989 saw Russell's profile start to grow, a reputation consolidated by two albums with soul singer Barrence Whitfield and, in 1995, his involvement with Tulare Dust, a multi-artist tribute to Merle Haggard, one of his seminal heroes, that would top the US country charts.

Enhanced by his dust thickened delivery, what emerges strongest throughout all his work is his keen ability as a storyteller, a master of the Western Gothic.

'Maybe it's something to do with the Irish in me,' he offers. 'But I was also schooled in sociology and criminology which I actually taught in West Africa in the late 60s. I think that both the desire to understand the social problems of street people and to be a short story writer seeped into my songwriting. …