This review is written by Kevin McCarthy, 3/99
"Kevin and Maxine’s Celtic & Folk Music CD Reviews"
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"I'm an American Primitive man, in an American Primitive land...American Primitive Man." Tom Russell's mantra-like archetype sears its way into the psyche as he employs his family's genealogy and emigration from Ireland and Scandinavia to America in a larger-than-life visceral spectre barely contained by this release.
The entire Russell family tree is unerringly depicted--from the old growth to Charlie Russell, Tom's father, from those who blossomed and bloomed to those stunted by the foibles of humanity, all in a panorama structured as a heterogeneous montage of mankind.
This epochal work is not history sanitized and agreed upon by an educational committee or publishing house. Rather, it is humanity captured in all its shapes and sizes, delivering the joys and sorrows, and sacrifices and hardships endured in the pursuit of a better life.
Russell has cannily brought in Iris Dement, Dolores Keane, Dave Van Ronk and Norwegians Sondre Bratland and Kari Bremnes as additional vocalists lending authenticity to this tableau of tales. Dement brings an emotional edge to "Wayfarin' Stranger" while Dolores Keane's smoky vocals on "Mary Clare Malloy" and "When Irish Girls Grow Up" are tear-inducing.
Van Ronk almost steals the show as he adds humor and raunchiness with his cackling, growling portrayal of the underbelly of the family lineage--the outcastes. He sings:
"...I'm yer inbred brother that was kept inside a shedBretland and Bremnes offer genuine and moving depictions of the Norwegian side of Russell's roots, bringing to life the stories, triumphs and tragedies of the innumerable Scandinavian emigrants who settled in the Midwest.
I'm the cross-eyed little stutterer who always wet the bed
I'm yer queer Uncle Harry, yer retarded brother Fred...
...I've embarrassed folks at weddings
I'm the cur who passed out face down in your anniversary cake
I'm the Black Sheep, the Philanderer, the Louse, the Souse, the Rake
The Remittance man, the Snake-the bloody outcaste..."
Russell's underrated vocals also deserve special mention. His ability to strike just the right nuance and reach the emotional timbre needed throughout this release is remarkable.
Choosing to close out on an upbeat note, he duets with Dement in touchingly wrapping up this powerful chronicle with the tender and optimistic "Love Abides":
One other important note to be made is that hearing single or even several cuts from this album does not do it justice. Like a great book, the scope and full effect of this production is incomplete and diminished unless it is experienced in its entirety.
The liner notes deserve special mention: Russell has assembled a 14-page booklet, bounded by twine, twice the size of typical liner notes that are too large for enclosure in any jewel box. He provides the expected song lyrics but also includes family pictures and photographs of historical events and figures. This is a collector's item.
Besides the all-star cast of vocalists, Russell is also backed by Annbjorg Lien on hardanger fiddle and Swedish nyckelharpa; Andrew Hardin on rhythm, lead acoustic and electric guitars; Jorund Bageberg on bass; Anders Engen on drums; Hank Bones on trumpet and trombone; Knut Riersrud on lead guitar, Weisseborn Hawaiian lap steel, banjo, resphonic guitar, doro, and harmonica; and Eoin O'Riabhaigh on uillean pipes and tin whistle.
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