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Calvin Russell, 62, dies after cancer battle. Songwriter was Texas icon in Europe

Michael Corcoran

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 protégé with the rugged features and signature hobo hat died Sunday at his home in Garfield after a lengthy battle with liver cancer. He was 62.

"Calvin's wife, Cynthia, called this morning at about 9:30 to tell us he passed away," close friend Brad Brobiski said Sunday.

Russell played for the last time at Giddy Ups in Manchaca in November. "He couldn't have weighed 100 pounds, and he was in pain, but he played four songs," said Leland Waddell , Russell's longtime drummer.

During his early '90s heyday in France, where he was considered a harder rocking, Texan 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.

His 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, and 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 hit ," Mathe said, explaining that the tape, titled "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 a dive, but because he didn't want to hear Merle Haggard requests all night, Russell cut around the brim to create the cartoony, porkpie hat 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 for forgery and marijuana possession. His earliest song-writing 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 area, buying 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 not to 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, when he was 12, as the family moved in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent.

When the family returned to Austin, Russell was held back three times at McCallum High School and then kicked out 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 his European heyday. "Everybody knew he was in prison and all that, but he was really a good guy. He cared about people."

Waddell said Russell had been in failing health for the past two years.

"We knew he was in trouble, but that final nail is still a shock," Waddell said. "We traveled the world together, and now our friend is gone."

Russell is survived by his wife; a son, Justin; a brother; and two sisters. Memorial services are pending.

mcorcoran@statesman.com;

445-3652