Kevin Russell goes solo--with a little help from his friends
By Bruce Robinson
'Mom was a drummer," remembers Kevin Russell. "She'd put on a record and play drums to the record." Despite this role model, maternal percussion was not what drew Russell into making music himself.
"I had two uncles who were wandering minstrels," he continues. "They'd turn up at our house once or twice a year with guitars and do a little concert for us. It was a very special thing, because we wouldn't watch TV. I have a very vivid recollection of gazing at this guitar and falling in love with the shape of it."
Flash forward 30-odd years, shift the scene from San Diego to Sonoma County, and we find Russell still embracing that favorite shape while moving through a prodigious circle of local musical associations. He's a co-founder of the neo-bluegrass band Modern Hicks, an active partner in the semi-electric Lucky Dawgs, a part of the shifting acoustic membership of Laughing Gravy, a rock and roll guitar slinger with Mark McLay and the Dust Devils, and a frequent acoustic sideman to rising singer-songwriter Audrey Auld Mezera.
Amidst all this, he's just released his second solo disc, Trouble in Mind.
Featuring a tasty buffet of Western swing, blues, country-western and bluegrass, the self-produced disc is laced with relentlessly tasteful picking from guitar master Jim Hurst. This allows Russell to concentrate on his warm, unaffected vocals, which often branch into multiple harmony parts. "In some ways, it's not that different from the Hicks," he offers modestly, "just a whole lot of me."
Of course, Russell was always a key component of that quintet, which grew out of a series of jam sessions in his living room in the mid-'90s. "We started playing different kinds of music together--country, rock, bluegrass, swing--all kinds of things," recalls mandolinist Lane Bowen, who had been in another band with Russell and current Modern Hicks bass player Ted Dutcher back in the early 1980s. "Somewhere along the line, we met Gina and it all came together from that."
That would be Gina Blaber, who came to the group by way of Libana, a Boston-based women's chorus that specialized in Eastern music. As the living-room sessions coalesced into an active band ("We just kind of impressed ourselves," Russell chuckles), they began to perform in public. "We did things at A'roma Roasters where you'd be competing with the coffee machines to do your tender ballads," she laughs.
A demo disc intended to showcase the group for other booking dates became the first Modern Hicks CD in 1999. Out Among the Stars is a 15-song showcase of their favorites from such songwriters as Jesse Winchester, Guy Clark and Gillian Welch. "There wasn't much planning that went into it," Blaber admits. "We were delighted that it actually became a CD."It also opened doors. "Instantly, festival were interested in us," Russell says, including California's high mountain Strawberry Festival, which he estimates he had visited eight to 10 times as a paying customer.
Tornado Alley was a more polished follow-up CD two years later, on which original songs began to emerge, a trend that flowered even more fully on last year's third Hicks disc, Under a Stormy Sky. "That's really me coming out as a songwriter," Russell says of his two contributions. "Settle Down With the Blues" is a minor-key swing number, while "Solid Wrong" offers an environmental commentary with a crisp up-tempo track. But when it was time for the new solo disc, there were no more new songs.
"I love writing, I just wish it came more easily for me," Russell sighs.
Teaming with Ted Dutcher, drummer Dan Ransford (a sometime Hicks collaborator) and Chip Dunbar on mandolin--an ensemble billed as Under the Radar--Russell has a CD release party slated for Studio E on July 9 and is looking to take the act farther afield as opportunities arise.
Those dates won't conflict with the Modern Hicks, who are "on a bit of a hiatus" as two of the five households have young children now. He's looking at that as an opportunity rather than a setback. "I'm a lot more focused" on making music now, he adds, despite supporting a successful day-job practice as a psychotherapist. "In the beginning we were lackadaisical and relaxed," he grins. "Now I'm very mindful of how to use the time."
Kevin Russell and his band perform on Saturday, July 9, at Studio E. A map and directions are issued with advance tickets. 7:30pm. $18. Go to www.northbaylive.com or the Last Record Store, 1899-A Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.525.1963.
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.