The Man From God Knows Where

Tom Russell

Hightone Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Tracing one's lineage is not some new fad or a passing fancy; it is something that has interested mankind for the longest time. Some people supposedly can tell a lot about their ancestors in their last names. I know a few people whose family tree does not fork, but that's another story altogether.

For folk musician Tom Russell, the tracing of his ancestry has led to The Man From God Knows Where, which could be called the Tommy of Celtic-influenced folk. Lining up a solid cast of musicians and vocalists, Russell traces through music the path of his ancestors from England and Norway, ghosts whose journeys eventually have rested with Russell - and who will travel on through his children.

I don't pretend to have understood the whole story told in the music; while the music featured on The Man From God Knows Where is beautiful, the story takes a little brainpower to totally comprehend. I don't feel I've spent enough time with the disc to accurately relay the story.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But even if you don't feel like applying both lobes to the story, Russell and his friends create a wonderful palate of music that mixes in the thrills of Celtic music (both Irish and Norweigan) with folk. The end result is something real special. You can recognize the shifting of movements with the repetition of the title track and of "Wayfarin' Stranger" (usually sung by Iris DeMent).

One surprise inclusion on The Man From God Knows Where is the voice of Walt Whitman. Think back to your literature classes - remember Leaves Of Grass? Yes, that Walt Whitman; his voice - recorded on an early Thomas Edison phonograph - is heard on the second version of the title track. It's a haunting inclusion, but one that I found fascinating. Not bad, seeing that I never finished Leaves Of Grass.

Dave Van Ronk's rowdy version of "The Outcast" is a high note of this album, as are the tracks featuring Dolores Keane and Kari Bremmes ("The Old Rugged Cross," "Anna Olsen's Letter Home"). Sondre Bratland's delivery of "Eg er framand" helps to link the past with the present in a hauntingly beautiful way.

But Russell is not always out to sing about the good times on The Man From God Knows Where. He's not afraid to talk about the darker times in his family's history ("Chickasaw County Jail," "Throwin' Horseshoes At The Moon"). Russell - who could easily be the modern day Johnny Cash - embraces both good and bad, as it makes up the history that he now is and that he will be passing on to future generations.

The album's close - reprises of "The Outcast" and "Wayfarin' Stranger", concluded with "Love Abides" - leaves the listener with a feeling of hope, that despite all the heartaches and hardships felt over two centuries and two continents, hope never took a back seat to fear or despair, and the clouds of life are finally breaking up to reveal the dawn of a new day.

Russell is presently touring in support of The Man From God Knows Where; this is the type of album that could easily translate into a successful musical. (Hey they did it with Tommy; why wouldn't this work, albeit on a smaller scale?) Russell is to be applauded for the work he has done on The Man From God Knows Where. Not only does he embrace the whole history of his lineage, he helps us to understand the plights that many families - possibly even our own - have faced over the years.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hightone Records, and is used for informational purposes only.