Academic, rocker Rob Russell plays a winning hand
The problem with interviewing a college writing instructor is that he’ll try to compose your first sentence. As soon as he speaks the words, the light bulb goes on. “Hey, that’s your lede,” he jokes. “‘Rob Russell is family friendly.’”
It’s a good line, but it brings to mind amusement parks and chopped steak at the Golden Corral—not a kick-ass rock singer who knows how to edit his on-stage language at all-ages music festivals. If only some booking agents hadn’t bristled at the smattering of well-placed curse words on his band’s 2005 disc, Lucky on the Side , and decided the rockers should stick to the rowdy bars of their home in Johnson City, Rob Russell and the Sore Losers might be on the schedule of more regional festivals.
Guitarist/lead singer Russell and his band—guitarist David Hart, drummer Andy Russell and new bassist Nathan Jones—are the odd men out, and not just because they’ve been boxed out by sensitive festival organizers.
“We don’t really fit,” says Russell. Not quite among the bands in Johnson City, where they’re one of the few groups with some longevity (five years), regional radio airplay and a measure of popularity. Nor do they fit snugly into a strict musical continuum that divides rock from country and folk with a thick black line.
But for fans of roots rock and Americana—genres existing solely within that amorphous blend of musical influences—Rob Russell and the Sore Losers provides a hearty dose of satisfying pop hooks, thrashing drums, two guitars that sound like three, a gut-rumbling bass rhythm and a lyrical pendulum that swings from bad love to worse.
By day, Russell, whose accent and wit echo his East Tennessee raising, heads the Writing and Communications Center at ETSU. In addition to training tutors, running workshops and pushing papers, he teaches in the English department. Teaching makes up only 20 percent of his job, but he loves it, especially when he’s torturing students with intro-level American Literature. “It’s a totally different world and world-view,” he says of the era that produced Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” “It’s amazing that the roots of our country are buried in the dark and twisted souls of these people who basically set up a David Koresh-like settlement on the coast of America,” he enthuses. “The Puritans would’ve hung me or set me on fire.”
Though he spends his days facilitating the appropriate arrangement of words, Russell swears it doesn’t make him a better writer. Academic writing and songs are different animals, he says. It’s all about the audience. Academic papers argue ideas to professors and thesis committees. “When I write the songs I’m going to perform, I’m writing to please myself,” he says. “I have my own standards and internal criteria.”
Russell began by using perhaps the best tutorial a songwriter could choose: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks . He was 11 or 12 when he picked up the record at the library. Russell guesses it was the first record he ever analyzed piece by piece to figure out how a songwriter did what he did.
“I’ve always approached songs that way, finding writers I admire,” he says. “The downside of it is you might end up writing a bunch of songs that sound like Bob Dylan.” (Um, that’s a downside?) To this day, Russell’s way with internal rhyme and storytelling structure reveals his kinship with Dylan and other masterful writers.
While Russell regularly crosses the borders between academic and rocker, he finds acceptance in both worlds. He’s not itching to pursue his fortune with music, and he seems quite happy to have his feet planted in such disparate fields.
“I’m lucky in a lot of ways that I have a job in academia because there’s a respect for the artist and the creative process,” says Russell. “There’s an expectation that people are going to be creative.”
To promote the music, there’s the requisite touring. The Sore Losers hit the road back in the spring, and…. “We got our ass kicked,” says Russell, and not by local bands looking to rumble. Gas prices chewed into any profits the band might have made playing gigs and selling merch. (Have you filled the tank of a van lately?) So they shucked plans for a summer tour and stuck closer to home, a decision that turned out lucky considering the ripple effects of Hurricane Katrina on gas prices, hotel rooms, etc. This weekend’s show at the Corner Lounge will be their first at the cozy dive and a preview for the next night’s show in Johnson City marking the re-release of the Sore Losers’ first CD, 2002’s I Think We’re Going to Be Alright . Russell comments with self-effacing amazement: “It only took us three years to sell 2,000 copies. We didn’t go gold; we went plywood.” They’re just lucky that way.
What: Rob Russell & the Sore Losers