A review of Tom Russell’s CD “Mesabi”

Tom Russell Mesabi CD

When his contemporaries and even some of the younger ones too have run out of fertile juice, Tom Russell keeps plucking from his desires, dreams and especially his memories.

His latest–“Mesabi”–is among his most creative ventures, bringing back to life artists and performers from multiple entertainment realms, their unsanitized human shortcomings and the feelings everyday folk attach to their stars.

In this release, the spectrum covers the resonance of Bob Dylan’s birthplace, reality’s demons despoiling actors Sterling Hayden and Bobby Driscoll, the improbable life of Ukelele Ike, Elizabeth Taylor’s serial quests for fulfillment, riffing off James Dean’s no-mans-land death and, very broadly, the fantasy world depicted in films plus what viewers add to such make-believe. Call it the human fascination with other worldliness, a respite from the down and dirty of reality.

Russell’s latest home territory, El Paso, but more so the accompanying Juarez, now separated by a river of hope and tears, is also tragically displayed.

In “And God Created Bordertowns,” Russell sings:

“…Our guns go ‘cross the Rio Grande
Two thousand pieces everyday
And the coke and weed and methamphetamine
Come sliding back the other way…

In “Goodnight Juarez,” he captures the nihilism present today:

“…Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows just
caught the last bus out
She said: “Seven sorrows used to fit the bill
but I’d need 10,000 now…”

But there is departure from the sins and sadness too, such as that depicted in “Love Abides,” a plying of eventual optimism plus the destruction of fear and a heading inside to one’s sanctuary core in “Heart Within A Heart.”

There is no one else offering this kind of material and with such a display. Russell presents an entertaining mix of past and present in displaying vignettes of our mostly human tragedy.

The Playlist

  • Mesabi
  • When The Legends Die
  • Farewell Never Neverland
  • The Lonesome Death of Ukelele Ike
  • Sterling Hayden
  • Furious Love (For Liz)
  • A Land Called “Way Out There”
  • Roll The Credits, Johnny
  • Heart Within A Heart
  • And God Created Bordertowns
  • Goodnight, Juarez
  • Jai Alai
  • Love Abides
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
  • The Road To Nowhere

A review of Ben Bedford’s CD “What We Lost”

Ben Bedford "What We Lost" CDBen Bedford

It’s one of life’s ethereally divine moments, hearing a compelling song yet not knowing the title or the artist. Immediately, nothing else matters. All focus and energy shifts to discovering the genesis of those words and sounds, it’s a siren song journey but with a happier conclusion.

Thus was my awakening to Ben Bedford, a process containing similarities to Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the New World since Bedford has two previous releases and a successful tenure as a singer-songwriter. His musical tree obviously sprouted in the forest some time ago but this convert must have been too focused on various branches or twigs to notice.

With Bedford, neither narrative nor rhyme is ever forced. His evocative lyrics present the living and the dead, the past and the present alongside all the twists and turns that design life. In many of his offerings, it’s a greater understanding either being sought or presented. Despite his relative youth, his music is remarkably old soul-like.

Bedford’s vocals are clear and precise, his musical accompaniment connective companions to his words. A number of his works are connected to people and places in his home state of Illinois.

Notes on various of his songs:

“John the Baptist,” opens the release, with the title character singing of baptism and resurrection, the superseding of the Old Testament and surrendering to the single path towards eternal life yet not utilizing literal directness through employing those specific terms. Such is his wonderful elevation of artistry. Near the beginning:

“…you don’t have to be afraid to die
river water’s cool and clean
burns sin off like gasoline
never mind your tooth for tooth
from a madman truth is still the truth…”

Duly note the odds are heavy that Chris Smither will want to record this cut some day.

With resonance from Ron de la Vega’ cello work, the title cut “What We Lost” is about a time and life remembered but now impossible to recreate. It’s the taste of victory in war soured by a very personal loss, the feeling of the collective not meshing with that of the individual.

Both of these songs epitomize a form of Faustian bargains of sorts, a giving up of something for what many, but not all in the end, deem is better overall.

Bedford sings of trigger events in the tumultous life of prairie troubador-poet Vachel Lindsay in “Vachel.” The opening lines offer a sense of Bedford’s lyrical touch:

“The hand of an artist is the open mind of god
pulling paint from the mud, the prairie wind to song…”

Next are “Fallen” and “Empty Sky,” separate creations but twined by the theme that love is truly free of verbal and written definition. It simply is, a manifestation visible in multiple embodiments and never improper.

“Cloudless” details the integrity of the search for meaning even when the target is less than fully defined and the journey is difficult for all. Bedford sings:

 “…my mother prays and my father’s bent with age
why wage a phantom war, why climb a hill I know will cause them pain?
but this desert sun is burning in my soul
this desert sun is burning in my soul
what I’m searching for I might never find I know…”

“The Ballad of Harlington Wood” zeroes in on Wood’s work as mediator in the Wounded Knee standoff between American Indians and the U.S. government in 1973. It brings to mind Robert Earl Keen’s “Shades of Gray.”


  • John the Baptist (3:45)
  • What We Lost (4:57)
  • Cahokia (2:44)
  • Vachel (5:06)
  • Empty Sky (3:54)
  • Fire in his Bones (4:01)
  • Cloudless (4:09)
  • The Ballad of Harlington Wood (3:47)
  • Guinevere is Sleeping (3:15)

copyright 2102, Ben Bedford, Butterchine Music

Tom Irwin wrote a lengthyinformative article on Ben Bedford and his music in November 2012.

A review of John McCutcheon’s CD “22 Days”

John McCutcheon's CD

The sense that creativity wanes with the turning of the calendar page is absolutely turned on its head by John McCutcheon’s new release “22 Days.” The birth father to 36 creations in his musical lineage, the latest demonstrates that age certainly hasn’t diminished his imagination.

What was the genesis for this offering? Paying homage to friend and musical comrade Vedran Smailovic who faced down death in war torn Sarajevo during the Balkan War by publicly playing a classical music piece for 22 straight days in honor of that number of civilian deaths there due to a mortar attack.

So in late May 2012, McCutcheon spent 22 consecutive days writing and composing. Covering topics illuminating a wide spectrum of emotions and traits, his worldly collection depicts love, hate, fear, courage, humor and tragedy and more as he sets his words amidst celtic, shanty, Appalachian and general folk tunes.

With smooth vocals that neither shout nor scold, McCutcheon sings of recent sordid history in Pakistan, peace substituted for war, aging gracefully, southern cuisine (apparently not an oxymoron), the void due to the absence of a longtime mate, mushroom hunting (of which it would be wonderful if Stan Rogers were still alive to take on this song — maybe Garnet will do so), the work left for the backs, arms and shoulders of immigrants, a pub patron’s dream/nightmare, the war loss of a lover, mining destruction, the infinite beauty of song and and the vagaries of viewing those who weave in and out of our lives.

Every listener will emerge from listening with his and her own favorites. For this reviewer “Of an Age,” stands out but possibly you have to be more than a few decades into your life to truly appreciate it.

Add in “Heaven’s Kitchen” whose title should somehow have included the word fried, the tierra firma shanty “Dry Land Fish,” and the celestial love song “Orion’s Belt.”

“Tonight” reeks of Harlan County due to both lyrics and very effective banjo but the genesis for the song is unfortunately far more widespread.

In the broadest of statements and employing an ample brush, McCutcheon has never penned a song even verging on the why-did-he-record-that territory. His musical ear remains keen as well as consistent.

On that aspect, why isn’t McCutcheon a Kennedy Center honoree? There may not have been millions earned or entertained but, of the quality, proficiency and deservedness, there can be no doubt.

Play List

  • Forgotten (4:58)
  • Fitzgerald (2:48)
  • Of an Age (3:28)
  • Heaven’s Kitchen (3:18)
  • Morning (3:40)
  • Dry Land Fish (2:39
  • Nothing Like You (5:46)
  • The Night That Dan Ryan Got Locked in the Pub (5:00)
  • Orion’s Belt (4:16)
  • Tonight (4:46)
  • She Sings ((3:33)
  • The Man Walking His Dog (2:41)
  • Adagio in Am (3:15)

A review of Joe Crookston’s CD “Darkling and the BlueBird Jubilee”

Joe Crookston Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee CD review

First, it was “The Sylvan Song” and “Fall Down As The Rain” as musical highlights in the CD with the latter song as the title.

Then came the release of a host of compelling compositions with “Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog” (“John Jones,” “Freddy the Falcon,” “Brooklyn in July,” “Blue Tattoo” as well as the title cut) generally featuring historical events and figures in and around Ithaca, New York and the state itself.

With “Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee,” Joe Crookston re-enters the realm of storytelling: especially spiritual and with the carving out of room for listener interpretation, paving the way for individual takeaway from the various tales.

The Highlights 

“Good Luck John” depicts the yin-yang of instantaneously ascribing a value judgment to life’s events minus any period of time-passing perspective, and also not. Label it the gauging of happenings as a ‘it just is what it is — at least for the time being’ portrayal.

In the mental illness and family-driven “The Nazarene,” Crookston amply demonstrates his songwriting motif in which observations/facts are again offered without the tipping point weight of positive or negative being attached. Two examples are:

” …Mom thinks she’s Jesus Christ the Nazarene …”

“… down the hall into the room where the other prophets are …”

Such ‘epithets’ as crazy or sick are not utilized, yet portrayed, because the illness isn’t the point, or at least not the primary focus.

“The Nazarene” is the most haunting and compelling cut. Given radio play, this song will be a stop-listeners-in-their-tracks composition.

In the title cut “Darkling and the BlueBird Jubilee,” Crookston starkly illustrates that objects and even life itself can be wrestled away but not values and how one lives life. A key lines: 

“… where love and persistence are the alter where I kneel …”

Another captivating cut, “Caitlin at the Window,” intertwines the lives of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin McNamara Thomas. From the perspective of the latter, it reflects on the haunting of their tumultuous twining and his final resting place in Lougharne, Wales (which also became hers). 

“I Sing” is philosophical gospel blues set to a banjo background.

In “Everything Here Is Good,” all unfurls in an almost effortless flow (that’s one of Crookston’s major artistic skills). Give it a listen and you’ll understand.

Sounding as if straight out of a hymnal but never directly affiliating with such is the backbone of “A Friend Like You.”

What Crookston has done with the liner notes for each song dovetails with the overall arc of the release. The offering for the title cut, “Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee,” reads: good? bad? hope. cynicism. triumph? be. accept. struggle. battle. accept. good? bad? evil. dark. light. transcend. continue. overcome.

Two other elements that remains constant throughout Crookston’s work are his ‘nothing is forced, all seems organic’ inviting vocals and the instrumentation surrounding his lyrics. Concerning the latter, he brings to mind Martin Simpson, who during his period fronting the group “Band of Angels,” would improvise with guitar play in between songs and what that produced was just as engaging as anything on the set list.

There are stories told here, maybe not as fully sketched as those on “Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog.” This one is in the vein of “The Sylvan Song” — more left to the perception and discernment of the listener.

“Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee” is definitely one of the top releases of the year, a very enjoyable compilation. Crookston may be under-recognized but his multi-faceted musical strengths make him one of the best today.


  • “I Sing – 2:33
  • “Caitlin At The Window” – 4:17
  • “Mercy Now” – 5:10 Mary Gauthier)
  • “Good Luck John” – 3:42
  • “The Nazarene” – 4:42
  • “Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee” – 3:20
  • “Everything Here is Good” – 3:21
  • “Wilderness Alone” – 3:21
  • “Blue” – 3:43
  • “A Friend Like You” – 3:22
  • “To Keep You Warm” – 2:46
  • “Darkling/Bluebird (Fear & Transcend) – 3:59

Joe Crookston’s website

A review of Tom Russell’s CD “Folk Hotel”

Tom Russell "Folk Hotel"

Tom Russell has never been a GRAMMY nominee let alone the winner of such an award. Of course, he’s not a ‘prominent’ singer-songwriter in a ‘popular genre’ but the artistry of his music, whether it be on his latest CD “Folk Hotel,” or in many of his earlier releases, blatantly outshines many of the actual honorees.

Just give “All on a Belfast Morning” a listen here:

Yes, “let us not confuse the pint with the pouring.”

In this new release, Russell continues his penchant for writing about historical and cultural figures in a compelling manner as with “Up in the Old Hotel” and its numerous references:

But in “Harlan Clancy,” he goes present day in depicting a segment of life in rural America so pertinent in the 2016 election:

Our vocabulary is expanded in the provocatively titled “The Dram House Down in Gutter Lane” with listeners learning about harrigans, hags, rusty guts and more. His vivid use of such antiquated words is reminiscent of the late Dave Carter.

Dylan Thomas and his poetry are lauded in “The Sparrow of Swansea.”

Russell writes and sings about fragility in life, of facing and combating demons, succumbing  to or subsisting alongside them in a makeshift shelter. He is both earthy and eloquent. There simply isn’t a better craftsman producing such work today.

Book Review: “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank

front book cover“Economics aren’t ecosystems. They aren’t naturally occurring phenomena to which we must acclimate. Their rules are made by humans. They are, in a word, political. In a democracy, we cannot set the table however we choose” — Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” eviscerates the Democratic Party for abruptly jettisoning its long held representation of blue collar American workers while simultaneously pursuing Wall Street, corporate cash and the professional class instead.

It’s a morality play of sorts. Not necessarily cardboard cutout good versus evil (although there’s certainly elements of that) but more the rich and powerful plus the Cool Kids lording it over Main Street America by rewriting the rules of economic fairness in favor of corporations, achieved by acquiring the allegiance of politicians through financial contributions and social standing. Granted, that’s been a long time given for the Republican Party but not so, or at least as complete, for the other side of the aisle.

Protecting the middle class, the working man and woman and the farmers used to be the Democrats mantra, “kind of a sacred mission for them” as Frank writes. That is certainly no longer.

Frank begins with Barack Obama’s squandered opportunity. He writes: “it was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” The Dems owned Congress for Obama’s initial two years and the country was in a financial and mortgage crisis. Yet changes were minimal and “predation resumed.”

Obama didn’t suggest, let alone propose, anything similar to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). There was zero direct job creation. The rhetoric of Obama the candidate versus Obama the president was also startling as he campaigned vocally against NAFTA but soon said yes to the Trans Pacific Partnership. His choices of Tim (Mr. Wall Street) Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury and Eric (Mr. Covington and Burling D.C. law firm) Holder as Attorney General resulted in a tap on the wrist accompanied by a forlorn apologetic look to financial wrongdoers (not by financial wrongdoers) in addition to lows in white collar prosecutions.

To wit: on March 22, 2009, Obama addressed a gathering of Wall Street CEOs and opened by referring to pitchforks among the general populace. However, he quickly told those assembled not to worry, that changes would not be happening.  Frank’s take on this and other subservience: “it was a Democratic failure, straight up.”

What Obama was for, to a degree in a hardwired manner, was consensus, bipartisanship and the hallowed center. This while hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and homes and Republicans openly vowed to make him a one term president by refusing to cooperate.

Then, Obama lost Congress in 2010 and, true to form, he again reached out. This time for the so-called Grand Bargain of trading social insurance cuts in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy. Bear witness to the heresy of a Democrat, a president no less, proposing reductions and limitations in Social Security and Medicare.

Compare Obama’s political direction and important hires to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) during the Depression era:

Frances Perkins, a longtime promoter of social justice and economic security, was named Secretary of Labor

Harry Hopkins, a social worker from Iowa, became FDR closest confidante and one of New Deal architects of the New Deal, especially the WPA

Robert Jackson possessed no law degree yet was named to the United States Attorney General position as well as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Marinner Eccles, a small town banker from Utah. became the Chairman of the Federal Reserve

Henry Wallace, owning no advanced degree, was named Agriculture Secretary and, later, became Vice President to FDR. He later ran for president as a member of the Progressive Party.

Thurman Arnold headed the Anti Trust Division. One of his prior achievements was writing “The Folklore of Capitalism.”

JK Galbraith, with the Office of Price Administration, even questioned classical economics

Frank also details the Democrats split with blue collar workers when a segment of Democrats began repeatedly calling for an end to The New Deal.  Future presidential candidate Gary Hart was vociferous in his willingness to drop union members and other blue collar workers for the burgeoning segment of white collar professionals. He even gave a campaign speech in 1974 titled “The End of the New Deal.” It was labeled a battle between the Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats versus the Atari Democrats. Neo liberals also detested labor unions, and the Democrats “cut bonds with the working class for the doctrine of individual excellence,” preferring high tech and the like over organized labor, farmers and the middle class.

Hart’s rise from helming the badly beaten 1972 George McGovern campaign to Democratic frontrunner is fascinating. His segment of the Democratic Party berated the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the presidential runs of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis as more of the same far-out liberal candidates with their out-of-touch ideas.

Frank strongly disagrees with those characterizations. He writes that Carter’s legislative agenda while president began with “…cancelling public works projects, and conspicuously snubbing organized labor. With the help of a Democratic Congress, he enacted the first of the era’s really big tax cuts for the rich and also the first of the really big deregulations…” as well as depictions of “…budget balancing Walter Mondale…” and “technocratic centrist Michael Dukakis…”

Also, the transparently phony Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) came to be in 1985, supposedly committed to working class voters because other Dems were “too weak on crime, too soft on communism, too sympathetic to minorities.”

For the DLC,  Dems could only win by moving further to the middle and supporting balanced budgets, free trade treaties, school privatization, social benefit reforms and the post industrial global economy. In other words, becoming Republicans.

As Frank directly notes, “how does any of these benefit middle class?”

Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win was supposed to bring aid and comfort to the middle and working classes as he campaigned on such planks. Granted, Clinton got a minimum wage increase passed but that positive was crushed by the passage of NAFTA, as well as financial, telecom, energy deregulation, punitive welfare changes, large increases in incarceration, the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall Act and attempts at Social Security and Medicare privatization with help from Newt Gingrich.

Again, how did this litany of sins better the lives of of working people?

Compare FDR’s evisceration of ‘economic royalists’ versus the new Dems now favoring knowledge workers, professionals and the high status groups and where innovation and technology are the regurgitated answers to any problems or concerns. Such has led to damning unregulated credit default swaps, Amazon with zero sales taxes, Airbnb facing no regulatory or safety rules, safety concerns with Uber and a maximization of profit by new and unregulated means and monopolies. Also as Frank notes, does anyone recall Apple, Intel, Google and Pixar entering into an informal agreement not to hire away each other’s employees? A lawsuit resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. So much for any ‘Do No Harm’ philosophical claims.

One question remains: why is it the Democrats can’t represent both blue AND white collar constituencies? Why is it the false choice of one or the other besides a stated disdain for those in lower classes? That’s hopefully grist for another Thomas Frank book.

Consider Democrat Deval Patrick, the former two-time (2007-2015) governor of very blue Massachusetts, in 2015 becoming managing director of asset management firm Bain Capital. Read Patrick’s Wikipedia entry here in order to get a sense of the personal and political choices he has made. The DLC and its ilk remain alive and completely out of touch with present day reality.

This book was published in 2016 prior to the national election.