Reba Russell: Soulful, Successful and Fiercely Independent by Silver Michaels

Posted on 7/02/2010 by Silver Michaels

In a career that has now spanned more than 25 years, Reba Russell has established herself as a perennial favorite in Memphis and well beyond. She's done it "the old fashioned way," combining her gifts as a vocalist with soul and style, recording and releasing albums of superb quality, and adding the sheer force of will that comes with believing in herself and having both the courage and talent to back up her convictions.

The current release from The Reba Russell Band, "8," not only carries on in her tradition of quality music but shows Russell is still willing and anxious to explore variations in style and form. She's assembled a near "dream band" of musicians - Russell on lead and all backing vocals, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms on keyboards and harp (and yes, it's the same Nighthawk who so ably contributes to American Blues News), husband Wayne Russell on bass, Doug McMinn on drums and percussion, and rapidly rising star Josh Roberts on all guitars. In a business known for volatility, Russell's current band is not only stunningly talented, but also stunningly stable. The lineup has remained virtually the same for the band's last three releases (including "Bleeding Heart" from 2008 and "Brokedown But Not Out" from 2006), the only exception being drummer McMinn, who joined right after the release of "Brokedown." Adding to the theme of continuity, Russell's longtime friend and business partner Dawn Hopkins engineered, mixed and co-produced the album; Hopkins has worked with the band on all eight of their releases and "as far as I'm concerned, is the best recording engineer within a thousand miles of here," says Russell.

The cohesion has paid huge dividends on this album - "8" sounds and feels like an album recorded by great musicians who not only enjoy working with one another but also know each other so well that they truly become a single unit within the music. This has the added advantage of allowing the band to push their own boundaries in regards to style and presentation. The album's opener, Almost A Memory, is a bit of a departure for Russell and company; it's a light, jazzy number with a real swing to it. Once this one gets into your head, it won't be leaving for a good long time. While absolute blues purists might take umbrage to this being the lead track, Russell's skilled vocal makes this an outstanding choice for a single that has serious hit potential to these ears. About half of the disc is comprised of emotional, slow ballads full of the gritty vocals Russell has become known for, songs where her soulfulness and depth truly shine. Of these, I'd have to pick Soul Wreckin' Saturday as a personal favorite, not only for the gut wrenching emotion, but for the excellent interplay between guitarist Roberts' earthy Delta tones and Nighthawk's keyboard and harp accents. There's a few well-crafted midtempo pieces, most notably Waters Only Water, which features very tasteful and melodic guitar lines that give the track a nice, contemporary feel to compliment a relaxed vocal. Good Woman's Gone is a fine uptempo number that has "concert favorite" written all over it ("I hope I ain't gonna wait too long / To get that good man when his good woman's gone").

Perhaps the most poignant pieces on the disc are two songs and a spoken word disclaimer that pay tribute to Jim Dickinson, an absolute Memphis legend much beloved by the music community. Dickinson passed during the recording of this album; says Russell, "I've got a couple of songs on this one where I'm giving a nod to my friend and guru, Jim Dickinson. Those two songs mean a lot to me." In keeping with the diversity of the album, the two songs span a wide range of emotions; Asshole, another absolute concert favorite, is a matter-of-fact, straightforward declaration that's none too complimentary, and Hitler Lives (prefaced by Dickinson's spoken disclaimer in regards to the song's subject matter) is a somber and intense reminder to us all that "Hitler lives when you hate your fellow man / Hitler lives if you forget all the heroes that have died..." It's a classic performance from Russell, showcasing not only her vocal talent but also giving a glimpse of the strong moral convictions she holds to.

Conversation with Reba Russell is a real joy. As you might well expect from the latest disc, she's an artist of great depth with a wide range of emotion. She's fiery, passionate, self-confident and a very loving fan of her own band and blues music in general. Reflecting about the recording of "8," she begins with, "Well, I liked it when we cut it and I still feel like it's pretty good. We're getting some airplay, so that's a good sign. I have a love affair with all my records... I like 'em all for different reasons. On this record, we cut it as live as we could... we did very few overdubs. The tracks basically went down like you hear them on the record. Just the fact that the band is so in sync with each other and with what we're doing and the direction that we're going in all made recording this album a beautiful thing. It was much easier all the way around."

Much of that ease, as mentioned, comes from the stability of the organization. "The core of the band has been together for a long time," says Russell. "Dawn Hopkins and I have been business partners since 1994 and this is the eighth record we've done together, so she and I pretty much have it down how we like to do things. Wayne and Robert are well aware of that... but I think this time Doug and Josh were way more comfortable because they had done a record like this a couple of times by now. By the time we got to the studio for this one, everybody was real comfortable. Josh has been with us full time for about six years, and Doug has had a chance to become assimilated during the last two records. At this point, it's one of the best bands I've ever had in my career." Reba gives a laugh (she laughs easily and frequently) and adds, "Hopefully we'll be able to maintain it and stay together for a while!"

Further reflecting upon the making of the album, Russell comments, "It also speaks to the virtuosity of the talent in this band. Most of the overdubs come from the fact that Robert can't play two instruments at one time. We have to go back and put harp or piano or organ on top of what he already recorded, but Josh, Wayne and Doug's tracks went down virtually live in the studio, no punching things in and out or anything. We just didn't have to do any of that. When people listen to the songs, I think it's evident that it's not over produced. The beauty part of that is when we go out to play live, the record sounds like the band. Even though we did add horns in a few places and a fiddle on one song for a little seasoning, you're basically hearing the band as it sounds and as we're going to play live. That's really important to me."

The diversity of the album is no accident. After more than a quarter century of recording and performing, perhaps the most daunting challenge facing an artist is remaining interested in their own work. Not a problem here. "I don't make the same record over and over again," states Russell. "I try specifically to stay away from repeating styles over and over again. If you ask why, I'll tell you simply that I don't want to hear the same record done three times from the same artist. That has been part of the game plan every time we set out to make a new record. Now, we have been criticized for being 'all over the place.' We've had reviewers say that our records aren't cohesive or don't have a theme... but I don't pay attention to any of that conventional wisdom or formulaic crap. That's not a part of my psyche. We're gonna make a record every two years; that's just how it's been working out, and whatever has happened to us and whatever we've written in that two year time... well, that's what goes on the record! We don't sit around and study what we should be doing. We just offer up what we have. That's how we do things, and we've made eight records now, so we're doing something right. We do what we wanna do."

Doing what she wants to do is, for Reba Russell, an obvious example of art imitating life. In private conversation with her or in more public forums (Facebook, for example, or her own songwriting), Russell is completely unafraid to express her views, be it current events or observations on the music industry. She has a much-deserved reputation as an artist unafraid to buck the system, especially in the name of her own art. "Well, I do go against the system a lot because there's a lot about the system that I resent. I have been signed, and I have done things in the past for other producers and songwriters early in my musical career, and all it taught me was that it wasn't how I wanted to do it. When it starts to become about the business part, you just lose so much. When you start concentrating on the common meaning of the word 'success,' or the socially accepted meaning of the word 'success,' you lose so much of what is meaningful to you about the music, about the camaraderie within the band. For me, I am more successful than I could ever have dreamed. I have lived my life as a musician, I've got a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator, I can pay my bills most of the time and I can do what I want to do without answering to anybody else. To me, that's success. Of course, everybody would love to make more money. It's not like I don't wanna make money, but I will not kiss ass for people to do things for me when I know good and well I can do it for myself. That's how we've done things for the past fifteen years, and I don't have a whole lot of fear anymore about doing what we do, because it has been successful. I've had loads of criticism, especially in the last five years from heavyweights in the blues world who have told me time and time again that I need to get signed to a record company, I need management, I need an agent, I need a publicist... just all these things. I don't buy into any of that. I guess if you wanna win a Grammy or be all over the television set or you want fame, that's what you need to do. I'm not really interested in fame. I'm just interested in playing music. I don't want and don't need to be a celebrity, let's put it that way."

However, Reba already considers her own band to be well worth celebrity status. "Oh, yeah, I'm a huge fan of my own band," she declares emphatically. "How could I not be? They are so good. The whole thing is amazing to me. I can't wait to make another record with these guys. I can't wait to get back into the studio and do another one." Perhaps most notable is the attention being given to her guitarist, 22 year old sensation Josh Roberts. He's on a lot of "can't miss" lists for his astounding virtuosity, particularly when it comes to slide guitar. Roberts receives a lot of accolades wherever he plays, and one might wonder if this is a bother to Russell.

No worries there. "Absolutely not! Are you kidding me?" Russell seems genuinely surprised at the question. "I've had some of the greatest musicians in the history of Memphis play with me and in my bands. The list is enormous, but I have to tell you that the two people of whom I'm most proud are (previous guitarist) Joe Schicke and Josh Roberts. Both times, instead of going with something that was a sure thing, I was smart enough to take a chance on these two young guys, and I was right. I was RIGHT! I love the fact that I can say, 'I told you so!' The fact of the matter is I know talent when I see it. Joe was 17 or 18 when I hired him, and Josh was barely 17 when I hired him. I love it when my guys shine. I see Josh as someday being 'The Guy'. He's already 'The Guy' around here, but I mean around the whole world. I think the sky's the limit for him. Stuff like that inspires me to do better. So, not just no, but hell no, I would never take his spotlight away."

With what looks like another successful release under her belt and demand for concert performances remaining steady, what does the future hold for Reba Russell? Most likely, more of the same. This is a woman still very much in love with music and the musical community that surrounds her. "I love music," she says, "and the bottom line is that I love artists and musicians. Musicians are my family. There's always somebody who's going to inspire you, so when you close your eyes to all that and think of nothing but yourself, you just miss out on a lot of good things, especially when you buy into your own hype. You might find that you're leaving some things behind that are very precious. I've found out that songwriting and making records is what I love to do. I adore it, and my only goal is to keep making music."

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

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