Singer-songwriter Calvin Russell’s story was one for the movies, an ex-con toiling in obscurity in Austin dives before a homemade cassette made him a star in Europe. The Townes Van Zandt protege with the rugged features and signature hobo hat passed away Sunday (April 2011) at his home in Garfield after a lengthy battle with liver cancer. He was 62.
During his early ‘90s heyday in France, where he was considered a harder rocking, Texas version of Tom Waits, Russell and his band took home as much as $15,000 a night, and gave their fans their money’s worth, playing three hour sets without a break. After shows they often received a Hell’s Angels escort back to the hotel. “They wanted to rock and, boy, we gave it to ‘em,” Russell told the American Statesman in 2005.
Russell’s unlikely career windfall came after a party for musician Ike Ritter in South Austin in 1989. Ritter’s friend Charlie Sexton was expected to attend, so, hoping the rising star would cover one of his songs, Russell made a demo tape and brought it to the party. But before he could get it in Sexton’s hands, French label owner Patrick Mathe, asked for a tape after Russell performed at the party. Russell had made only one copy.
Four months later, Russell, whose real name was Calvert Russell Kosler, received a call from Paris. “You have a heet,” Mathe said, explaining that the tape, entitled “A Crack In Time,” was released to great acclaim. It went on to sell 100,000 copies in Europe. After Russell was shown performing on a commercial for Swiss Oil during the 1994 World Cup, he couldn’t walk around Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin without attracting a crowd.
“They really loved the hat,” Russell told the Statesman. “That’s how they knew it was me.” Russell had been given a felt cowboy hat by a drunken patron at some dive, but because he didn’t want to hear Merle Haggard requests all night, Russell cut around the brim to create the cartoony porkpie that would define his image as a trouble-tossed, yet tender troubadour. Russell’s look was not a pose, but the product of a hard life. He started writing songs as an 18-year-old serving time in Huntsville on forgery and marijuana possession charges. His earliest songwriting inspiration was fellow prisoner Shotgun McAdams, a rhyme master who got his nickname robbing Safeways with a shotgun.
While in Europe, where he owned an apartment in Amsterdam, Russell was sweating a 1995 conviction for possession of cocaine back home in Austin. He eventually received eight years probation on the cocaine charge and moved back to the Austin area, where he bought 14 acres about 10 miles east of Austin. He lived there with his wife, whom he married when she was 22 and he was 49, and five dogs.
Russell was the fourth child, but the first to not die in infancy, of a short order cook and a waitress at the Sho’ Nuff Cafe on South Lamar Boulevard. The family lived on a dead-end street next to Pete Pistol’s Wrecking Yard; one of Russell’s most vivid childhood memories was the sound of the car wheels on the gravel road on the night, when he was 12, that the family moved in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent.
When the family returned to Austin, Russell was kept back three times at McCallum High School, then kicked out of school when he showed up at the senior picnic with a six-pack of beer. “I was technically a 10th-grader, but I wanted to party with the kids I came in with,” he told the Statesman.
“Calvin always had that aura about him that he was tough,” said drummer Waddell, whose brother David played bass with Russell during the European heyday. “Everybody knew he was in prison and all that, but he was really a good guy. He cared about people.”
Russell says an adage passed down from his great-grandmother, a Comanche Indian he says lived to be 106, best sums up his life. “She told me that everyone had two dogs inside them fighting. There was the good dog, the loving dog and there was the evil, violent dog. The one that won was the one you fed.”
“Austin in the ’60s was dirty, nasty, hip and dangerous all at the same time,” says Russell, who made his living selling LSD, which was legal until October 1966. Russell’s drug connection was a successful car dealer in San Antonio who had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” of the straight life, converting his mansion into a counterculture flophouse.
Another benefactor to the peace and love generation was a wealthy, middle-aged West Austin woman who’d inherited a fortune after her husband’s death and used the money to bankroll recording projects and feed and house a commune on her property. “One day we saw police looking at the back of the house with binoculars and that’s when she said, ‘Let’s move to Mexico.’ “
She bought a 60-passenger yellow school bus, ripped out most of the seats, put in a Lear Jet stereo system and rolled south on Interstate 35 with a group of kids in sleeping bags inside. The bus was stopped at the border, however. “They said something or other wasn’t in order with the bus,” Russell says, “but they also said we had to get haircuts.” While the bus stayed on the U.S. side, Russell and his friends walked over to the Mexican side and met a pot dealer who sold them Mexican weed for $3 a kilo (2.2 pounds). Russell brought the marijuana back to Austin where he sold it for $10 an ounce in Prince Albert cans. In 1968, high on LSD, Russell used a credit card he says someone had given him to get a room at the Chariot Inn. When he signed the name on the card, he was guilty of forgery and ended up serving 15 months at Huntsville.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Russell says of his stint at hard labor. “I had blisters on my hands, blisters on my neck from the hot sun. The guards were a sorry, sadistic bunch and they’d look for any excuse to whale on you.”
When Russell got out, he started frequenting Spellman’s on West Fifth Street and fell in with a hard-livin’ songwriting crowd that included Foley, Jubal Clark and Rich Minus. But hearing Townes Van Zandt for the first time, at a song-swapping session at Seymour Washington’s former blacksmith shop in Clarksville, was the true epiphany. “He had this magical use of words,” Russell says. “I remember he played ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and Seymour had tears streaming down his face. That’s when I realized just what a song could do.”
Van Zandt, sensing that this ex-con was a true outlaw, took in “Calvert Russell” — he used his first and middle name on the bill until everyone kept misspelling and mispronouncing it as “Calvin” — as a creative protege. “I shut up around Townes and listened,” he says. “All my intelligence just went right to him.” By example, Van Zandt taught Russell to write in complete seclusion and to not play a song until it was finished. “You never saw Townes working on a song.”
Material came slow to Russell, whose club sets were stocked with covers of blues artists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. But over the years he’d built up a catalog of 22 songs he was proud of. When Charlie Sexton was signed to MCA Records in the mid-’80s and ended up on the cover of Spin, Russell compiled a demo with hopes that the kid who’d grown up around drunken songwriters would record one of his songs. In early ‘89, Sexton was expected to show up at a birthday party for his guitar mentor, Ike Ritter. Russell had his demo cassette in his pocket when he played a short set of covers in Ritter’s living room.
But before he could give the tape to Sexton, Russell was approached by visiting French label boss Mathe, who said he liked Calvin’s style. “I gave him the tape I was going to give to Charlie and the next morning I got a call from Patrick. He said, ‘I want to put this record out,’ and I thought, well, Warner Brothers ain’t knocking my door down, so, yeah, go ahead. I didn’t expect anything to happen.”
Then came the call about the “heet.”
So here was Calvin Russell, boarding a plane for Geneva, Switzerland, ready to play his first European show, solo acoustic, in front of 3,000 fans. “I was the opening act for a rock band, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the crowd loved it,” he says. When he played Lille, France, with a full band a few months later, the audience was 7,000 strong and out of control in its enthusiasm. “I was petrified,” he says. “I was afraid to adjust my amp. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
While most of his musical associates were mired in alcohol abuse, including Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack at age 52, Russell says he was never really much of a drinker. “Psychedelics and some good herb — those were my things,” he says.
But after a French journalist described Russell as a Jack Daniels-swigging tunesmith in a major feature, big bottles of Jack started showing up backstage before every show. And Russell began partaking. “We liked to play on LSD,” he says, “and when you’re tripping you can drink all the booze in the world and not pass out.” The hangovers got brutal and Russell realized that he was killing himself. These days he has an occasional beer, but stays off the hard stuff.
“We’re pretty laid-back,” he says of himself and wife Cynthia, whose family bought one of the trailers on the property and visits so often that the clock in the guest trailer is set on Swiss time.
He met his fourth wife nine years ago at a festival in the Alps. “Her daddy was a fan and he got his kids into my music, so they all came back after a show,” he says. “That first night, Cynthia said she wanted to be with me, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to have nothing to do with a woman that beautiful. She’s probably just looking for a big cocaine party.’ “
A few nights later, Russell and his band were playing a show in Madrid and a band member said, “Hey, Calvin, there’s that girl from Switzerland.” Cynthia was near the front and afterward came backstage. “I want to be with you,” she reiterated, and this time added, “forever.” The couple was married two years later, when Cynthia was 22 and Calvin 49.
Don’t let the glamor gap fool you — the supermodel and the hobo poet are a perfect match. “Cynthia’s just a village girl who likes simple things, like a clean house and playing host to her family,” says Russell.