Songwriter Tom Russell has ranged as far afield as Ireland and Norway, and not just in his stories–the 1999 album The Man From God Knows Where, which draws on his great-grandfathers’ diaries and retraces his family’s journey to America, was recorded in a farmhouse near Hardanger Fjord. But on Borderland (Hightone), due out this week, he stays close to El Paso, Texas, where he moved four years ago: the music is adorned with mariachi horns, wheezing norteño accordions, and Spanish-tinged acoustic guitars, and the lyrics almost all seem to be about dividing lines, whether between countries or people. In “Down the Rio Grande” a man follows his lover through dusty rainstorms and baking sun, only to pull up short at the river, looking across at a Mexico that seems half promised land and half purgatory; meanwhile Russell’s gentle, insistent fingerpicking evokes the rhythm of the highway beneath car wheels and the beating of a heart. The border guard of “California Snow,” in despair about his broken family, is also haunted by memories of the men and women he pursues. And in the up-tempo country rocker “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” an old man reminisces about the lawless glory days of that Mexican border town. But Russell’s forte is the brooding, mescal-sodden ballad: “Touch of Evil” uses Orson Welles’s 1958 film classic as a framework, connecting episodes from a couple’s disintegration with scenes in the movie. The lyric imagery can get a little precious (“I grew up near those dead canals where they filmed the longest pan shot ever made”), but the doomed wretch at the song’s heart is a riveting character–he asks his woman, “Why don’t you touch me anymore?” and then escapes to a Juarez cantina to raise a glass “to Orson and the touch of evil livin’ in our souls.” Friday, April 13, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. Saturday, April 14, 9 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andow Studio.