Tom Russell

Tom Russell
Tom Russell
Photograph by Colin Wolff

Born in Los Angeles, the 56-year-old songwriter has lived everywhere from Austin and Brooklyn to Vancouver and war-torn Nigeria, but he now calls El Paso home. His ambitious, literary-minded writing has resulted in more than twenty albums; the latest, Blood and Candle Smoke (Shout Factory), was just released.

You set out to be a sociologist, then got a master’s degree in criminology. How did you get to where you are today? I was about to drop out of the University of California when I met this radical, left-wing criminologist. He ended up getting a gig in Nigeria to teach and asked me to go as a student teacher. He wanted a black American, but nobody wanted to go over there. I didn’t even know where it was! My eyes were opened in a lot of ways. I ended up reading more Graham Greene and playing guitar than I did getting into sociology. I couldn’t see myself in a university system the rest of my life, and when I came back, I ended up in Vancouver. I was walking by a bar when I heard somebody singing a Hank Williams song, and I thought, “Hell, I’ve always wanted to do that.” It took me six or eight months, but that’s eventually what I did. I was approaching thirty by the time I got into showbiz, as they say. But it’s worked well, because I’ve had a long, slow rise as a songwriter.

Are you a disciplined writer? I have to be. It’s rewarding, and I don’t have much else. I married a beautiful Swiss gal a year ago, and I told her, “The only way this is gonna survive is if you allow me to write for three or four hours. I don’t want to talk in the

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