Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tom Russell – Folk Hotel

Folk Hotel
Frontera Records

I checked into the Folk Hotel when I was a teenager in the late-1960s. Tom Russell, who is about five years older than me, was already there. Both of us encountered many of the same legendary figures who were there before us – legends whose spirits loom large over Folk Hotel, Tom’s brilliant new masterwork; a collection that comes hot on the heels of Play One More: The Songs of Ian Sylvia, a wonderful tribute to a couple of the legendary residents who were already on the upper floors of the Folk Hotel before either of us got there.

There are 14 tracks on Folk Hotel – 13 written or co-written by Tom – and every one of them is worthy of great praise.

The album open s with “Up in the Old Hotel,” a song inspired by stories and legends of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a residence favored by writers, musicians, actors and artists for more than a century. References to “Ma and Pa Kettle on the radio,” Louis Armstrong singing “I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home,” and the death of Dylan Thomas, who died at the Chelsea in 1953, suggest a timeframe for the narrator sweetly singing about “falling in love up in the old hotel.”

Although Tom was conjuring images from another time in the opening track, the second song, “Leaving El Paso,” is a reflection of his own life. Tom lived for many years in El Paso, across the river from Juarez, Mexico, until he and his wife Nadine Russell sold their place a couple of years ago and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The song features wonderful playing by Joel Guzman on guitar and Red Volkaert on Spanish guitar and, like many of Tom’s border ballads from his El Paso years, has a lovely Tex-Mex feel.

A conversation with Canadian folk and cowboy music legend Ian Tyson – with whom Tom has co-written a bunch of songs including “Navajo Rug” and “When the Wolves No Longer Sing” – inspired “I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses.” Describing Ian in the verses and channeling him in the chorus, Tom lets us in on why Ian, well into his 80s, won’t give up the hard life on his Alberta ranch.

“The Sparrow of Swansea (For Dylan Thomas),” co-written by Katy Moffatt and recorded by her on the 1996 album Midnight Hotel, is an older song that Tom never released himself. But, in the context of the Folk Hotel, it’s one that needed to be here. It’s a lovely song – with harmony by Eliza Gilkyson – that captures the seemingly contradictory beauty of Thomas’ poetry and the rage of his alcoholism.

“All on a Belfast Morning,” introduced with the recitation of “He Stumbled Home from Clifden Fair” by Irish poet James H. Cousins, is a Tom Russell song steeped – like some of the songs Tom wrote for The Man from God Knows Where – in the Irish folk tradition. The alcohol that flowed through “The Sparrow of Swansea” is here, too, but, so, too is the wisdom of the poets and the Irish ballad singers.

In “Rise Again, Handsome Johnny,” Tom recalls a fleeting encounter he had as a young boy with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, the assassination of the president in 1963, and a high school football game he played that day. There’s an infectious Mississippi John Hurt vibe to the arrangement courtesy of Max de Bernardi’s fine fingerpicked guitar playing.

He doesn’t say so in the song, but I think the title protagonist in “Harlan Clancy” is one of those fed-up white voters in Ohio who probably supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went for Donald Trump out of frustration in 2016. “I ain’t no racist, I ain’t no redneck,” sings the character as he explains his frustrations. Without specific reference to the Trump campaign, the song helps provide a measure of understanding of why some voters might have gone that way. (By the way, I’m writing this review the day after the racist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and I’d like to think that the Harlan Clancys of this world would be appalled by what happened there and by Trump’s response.)

Tom relates a dream in “The Last Time I Saw Hank” in which imagined memories of Hank Williams and Jesus intermingle with real (or really possible) memories of George Jones and his parents.

“The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence” is a song from Tom’s life. The coyote fence describes the fence around Tom and Nadine’s new house in Santa Fe that is meant to keep the coyotes out and on “Some nights we can see light of fires as Indians dance/And the eyes of God shine through the coyote fence” – but, mostly, it’s a song about being a traveling folksinger, about what that lifestyle entails, and about the refuge from that lifestyle that the home inside the coyote fence represents.

I think “The Dram House Down in Gutter Lane” is the third part of a trilogy begun in “The Sparrow of Swansea” and “All on a Belfast Morning” that helps us understand the thin, fragile edge and human frailties that have defined so many.

It’s followed by a three-part track – a poem, a short song, and a standard-length song: “The Day They Dredged the Liffey/The Banks of Montauk/The Road to Santa Fe-O.” The poem is a tribute to Irish writers that, in four short verses, references James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and William Butler Yeats. The short song references the first cattle ranch in the United States (on Long Island of all places) and leads into a love song in which Tom uses the template of an old folk whaling ballad to describe meeting Nadine, the Swiss woman who became his wife, and their journey to a new home in Santa Fe.

In “The Rooftops of Copenhagen,” Tom describes observing a real-life character in a Copenhagen bar, hearing the guy’s story from a waitress, and then – 20 years later – finding out how the story ends.

The only non-original on Folk Hotel has Tom conversationally trading verses with Joe Ely on perhaps the most beautiful ever of the Bob Dylan classic, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Tom’s acoustic guitar and Joel Guzman’s accordion provide perfect backdrop.

The album ends with the epic “Scars on his Ankles,” a song about blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, writer Grover Lewis, and the relationship shared by the older African American man and younger white man. Tom’s singing storytelling glides seemingly effortlessly for nine minutes on top of Max de Bernardi’s intense, Hopkins-styled playing on acoustic guitar.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Russell (2012)
Tom Russell, as I’ve said many times before and will, no doubt, say again in the future, is the finest songwriter of my generation. He proves it, yet again, on Folk Hotel.

Folk Hotel will be released on September 8 but is now available for pre-order at Frontera Records. You can also order the companion book which contains all the lyrics, Tom’s thoughts on the songs, some stories from the Folk Hotel and Tom’s original paintings inspired by some of the residents.

I will be featuring several songs from Folk Hotel during a multi-artist feature on “Songs of Tom Russell” when I host the August 19 edition of the Saturday Morning show (7-10 am EDT) on CKCU. Listen live at 93.1 FM in Ottawa or live or on demand (after the live show) on the web at

Find me on Twitter.

And on Facebook.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Julie Chadwick – The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon

The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon
By Julie Chadwick
392 pages

Johnny Cash, who also had deep roots in folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, was – in my not so humble opinion – among the greatest country music artists of all time, perhaps the greatest.

The basic story of Cash’s life – from his rise in Memphis in the 1950s, through his drug addiction and unreliability as a performer and ultimately tremendous successes in the 1960s, the collapse of his first marriage and love affair with June Carter, who became his second wife, his embrace of fundamentalist Christianity, and on to his late-career renaissance via his stripped-down-to-basics American Recordings – is well known.

Less well known is the story of Saul Holiff, the Jewish Canadian entrepreneur from London, Ontario, who was Cash’s manager from 1960 through 1973, and the story of how Holiff and Cash’s lives and careers were so much a part of each other for 13 volatile years. Those are the stories that British Columbia-based journalist and author Julie Chadwick tells in The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon.

Holiff kept meticulous records, diaries and even tape recordings and his son, Jonathan Holiff, director of the 2012 documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” gave Chadwick access to that material. She also conducted extensive research and interviewed surviving principals who were involved with Holiff, Cash and their stories.

The Man Who Carried Cash – a title whose meaning can be interpreted both literally and figuratively – is a compelling read that begins with the circumstances of Holiff’s death in 2005 and then goes back to before his birth and the anti-Semitism that his family faced in Ukraine before they immigrated to Canada where Holiff was born in 1925, and his youth in Canada.

Serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, Holiff became fascinated with show business and eventually became a concert promoter which led to his developing a relationship with Cash and becoming his manager.

The years Holiff worked with Cash included both the lowest points – when Cash’s drug addictions made him an unreliable performer who couldn’t be counted on to show up for his concerts – and the highest points when he rode the top of the charts, starred in his weekly TV variety series, and became one of the music world’s most successful artists. Through those years Holiff worked to keep Cash’s career viable and on track.

Dealing with Cash – when he was at either end of the success spectrum or somewhere in between – was never easy and it took a toll on Holiff who eventually told Cash he’d had enough and walked away. As the blurb on the back of the book notes, “In 1973, at the zenith of Cash’s career, Saul quit. Until now, no one knew why.”

Holiff, himself, was no saint. It was particularly sad to read about his failed relationships with his sons as they grew up. For that matter, one of the saddest sections of the book relates to the failure of Cash’s first marriage and of his failed relationships with his four young daughters (Cash left Holiff to deal with many of the details of his divorce).

There is much insight to be gained into Cash’s career and the music he was making – at least during the Holiff-managed years – from the book. But, mostly, Chadwick's great success is in her study of the relationship of two men who were completely dependent on one another and of how that relationship affected, and was affected by, the people around them.

Find me on Twitter.

And on Facebook.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday Morning with Mike Regenstreif – CKCU – Saturday July 22, 2017

Saturday Morning is an eclectic roots-oriented program on CKCU in Ottawa heard live on Saturday mornings from 7 until 10 am (Eastern time) and then available for on-demand streaming. I am one of the four rotating hosts of Saturday Morning and base my programming on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches format I developed at CKUT in Montreal.

CKCU can be heard at 93.1 FM in Ottawa and on the web.

This episode of Saturday Morning can be streamed on-demand at

Extended theme – Songs of Joni Mitchell.

Jayme Stone, Dom Flemons & Ron Miles- Buttermilk

Karen Dalton- Same Old Man
In My Own Time (Light in the Attic)
Too Sad for the Public w/Suzzy Roche- Black River Falls

Ben Bullington- Lazy Moon
Lazy Moon (Ben Bullington)
Tim Grimm & the Family Band- Thirteen Years
A Stranger in This Time (Vault)
Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer- I Go Like the Raven
Drum Hat Buddha (Signature Sounds)
Billy & Bryn Bright- Jerusalem Café
Billy & Bryn Bright (Blue Corn)

Joe Jencks- Let Me Sing You a Song
Poets, Philosophers, Workers & Wanderers (Turtle Bear Music)
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer- Well May the World Go/Letter from Pete’s Banjo
Get Up and Do Right (Community Music)
Pete Seeger w/Arlo Guthrie & Shenendoah- Precious Friend You Will Be There
Precious Friend (Warner Bros.)

Deborah Robins- The Keweenaw Light
Home Fires (Zippety Whippet)
The Malvinas- How Can I Keep from Singing
God Bless the Grass (Soona Songs)
Mason Daring & Jeanie Stahl- River
The Early Years (Daring)
Tom Russell- When the Wolves No Longer Sing

Tom Russell- Up in the Old Hotel
Folk Hotel (Frontera)
Louis Armstrong- I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home
What a Wonderful World (MCA)

Tom Rush- Tin Angel
The Circle Game (Elektra)
Judy Collins- Chelsea Morning
Forever: An Anthology (Elektra)
Ian & Sylvia- The Circle Game
So Much for Dreaming (Vanguard)
Joni Mitchell- For Free
Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise)
Caroline Herring- Cactus Tree
Golden Apples of the Sun (Signature Sounds)

Dave Van Ronk- That Song About the Midway
Sunday Street (Philo)
Tigger Outlaw- Songs to Aging Children
Alice’s Restaurant soundtrack (Ryko)
Mike Beck- Carey
Mariposa Wind (Reata)
Joni Mitchell- Little Green
Blue (Reprise)
Marjan Cornille- A Case of You
Won’t You Try (Munich)

Robin & Linda Williams- Urge for Going
Back 40 (Red House)
Bob Dylan- Big Yellow Taxi
Dylan (Columbia/Legacy)
Robinlee Garber- Amelia
Resilience (Robinlee Garber)
Joni Mitchell- The Silky Veils of Ardor
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Asylum)
Pete Seeger- Both Sides Now
Young vs. Old (Columbia)

Lynn Miles w/Keith Glass- My Road
Road (Lynn Miles)
Jack Williams- Banks of the Edisto
Far Away, Long Ago (Wind River)
John McCutcheon- Between Good and Gone
Trolling for Dreams (Appalseeds)
Vance Gilbert- Old White Men
Old White Men (Disismye Music)

Jean Ritchie & Sons- My Dear Companion
Mountain Born (Greenhays)
J. Reissner- Drunk Companion
Portrait in Blue (J. Reissner)
Claire Lynch- If Wishes Were Horses
Crowd Favorites (Rounder)
The Sherman Holmes Project- Rock of Ages
The Richmond Sessions (M.C.)
Andy Cohen- Road Be Kind
Road Be Kind (Earwig)

Andy Cohen- Windy and Warm
Road Be Kind (Earwig)

I’ll be hosting Saturday Morning next on August 19. The extended theme will be Songs of Tom Russell.

Find me on Twitter. @MikeRegenstreif

--Mike Regenstreif