Like the protagonist of “That’s Life,” Tom Russell has been a pauper and a poet, but his steadfast refusal to be goaded into the role of pawn has consigned him to the fringes of both the rock and country scenes. Judging by the tenor of his outsider manifesto “Hotwalker,” the meat of this sold-out Gotham gig, he seems to savor that spot with gusto.
The recorded version of “Hotwalker” — released this week on Hightone — is as much an aural documentary as it is a concept album. In his efforts to recapture a slice of America that’s long gone — in this case, the “old America” of Charles Bukowski, populated by gamblers, carnies and not-so-beautiful losers — Russell is more Sam Fuller than Ken Burns, more interested in telling many vividly clangorous small stories than one neatly arranged big one.
Russell couldn’t count on most of the disc’s guests to join him onstage for its Gotham unveiling, seeing as most of them — from Dave Van Ronk to Lenny Bruce — have long since shuffled off this mortal coil. They were, however, present in spirit, and in some cases, in taped accompaniment, lending an eerie (but consistently affirming) tenor to pieces such as the low-slung “Grapevine” and the appropriately arid “Bakersfield.”
Accompanied by guitarist Andrew Hardin — who, much like Ry Cooder, can coax Hawaiian mist and Tijuana grit from his instrument in the course of a single run — Russell spun his yarns with a compelling mix of nostalgia and immediacy. Using the taped reminiscences of his late pal, a onetime circus midget named Little Jack Horton, as a fulcrum, Russell swung wildly from revival tent hosannas to roadhouse dust-ups over the course of the 75-minute perf, effectively blurring — even eradicating — the line between the sacred and the profane.
Tom Russell performs at McCabe’s in Santa Monica on March 13.