What to do tonight: Tom Russell brings his Americana sound to Shadyside

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Tonight we ride to The Roots Cellar in Shadyside to hear one of the country's best singer-songwriters, Tom Russell.

Mr. Russell is on tour promoting "Mesabi," the 26th album in his four-decade career of telling America's stories straight from its "wounded heart."

That's just one of the ways he and his music have been described. The New Yorker hails his "surgical songwriting skills" for producing "a fierce, sharply drawn portrait." The San Francisco Chronicle calls him "the last wandering Beat. ... A prolific and venerable artist writing the best songs of his career." The Boston Globe labels this album "a crafted treasure of engaging nobility," and The Washington Post said it "confirms Russell's status as one of the best singer-songwriters of our time."

His performances -- which you might have caught on "The Late Show With David Letterman" -- are fairly streamlined. A man, a guitar, a microphone and some accompaniment.

"Live music is a tightrope walk where anything can happen," Mr. Russell said in anticipation of tonight's show. "It's the real deal. Recording is controlled. Anyone can record a record with tricks, but you can't fake it live."

The results move the audience -- whether it's to hoots and hollers as he sings a song of riding a Western range or to stirring silence as he shares the pain of a man dealing with heartbreak in a cold world.

"Songs are always the center of our universe," Mr. Russell said. "Troubadours have been around forever. Most people rely on music to get them through the day. Songs tell the truth."

One of his truth-telling pieces is called "U.S. Steel." If you don't mind, I think we have the space here to share the lyrics:

Homestead Pennsylvania, the home of the U.S. Steel.

And the men down at the Homestead Works

Are sharing one last meal

Sauerkraut and kielbasa, a dozen beers or more.

A hundred years of pouring slab,

They're closing down the door

And this mill won't run no more.

There's a silence in the valley, a silence in the streets

A silence every night upon these cold white sheets

My wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare

She says "you kill yourself for 30 years and no one seems to care."

You made their railroad rails and bridges, you ran the driving wheel

And the towers of their Empire State are lined with Homestead Steel

The Monongahela Valley no longer hears the roar

There's cottonwood and sumac weed inside the slab mill door

And this mill won't run no more.

"I wrote 'U.S. Steel' about the factories closing down there," Mr. Russell said. "I suppose that's universal. Gut level. Centered in the heartland. It's been used in movies."

He performed the song during a 2009 appearance at Diesel in the Strip District. There's a clip of it available on YouTube.

"I love Pittsburgh," said Mr. Russell. "It's a real American city. The rivers and the bridges. The people. I have old friends there who run record stores. Like Jerry's Records and Dave's Record Mine."

Yeah, he's a little "old school."

Mr. Russell takes the stage at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Fifth and Shady, tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $28. (Students get in for $12.)

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"U.S. Steel" performance-Tom Russell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBSVPRJOkEk

If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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