A Stranger in His Own Hometown
written by CARL DANBURY
photography by LIZ ERIKSON PHOTOGRAPHY except the
photo of the band which is courtesy of KIM BRANTLEY PHOTOGRAPHY
site location courtesy of THE BARN AT URBAN FARM
RUSSELL MOORE’S VOICE HAS RANGE, figuratively and literally. Depending upon the song, his voice can perk you up, make the corner of your eyes get misty or create a smile so broad that you hope your teeth have been well brushed. Had he chosen a big Stetson hat, a snappy shirt with a bolo and a license-plate-sized belt buckle holding up some pre-washed jeans when he was younger, he might have found a place next to some of country music’s brightest talents for the past 26 years. Instead, Moore opted for an authentic genre, bluegrass, where ostentation is on permanent vacation and the folks involved tend to be genuine and unentitled. Bluegrass allows Russell Moore to be himself.
He has lived in Cumming with his wife, Carol, since 1991. They raised two sons here. He enjoys interacting with fans, but he’s got a better chance being recognized in Kentucky or southwest Virginia, for example, than in his own hometown. Unbeknownst to many here, Moore is the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) most awarded male vocalist, having won Male Vocalist of the Year an unprecedented five times. He was just nominated again this year. His band, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, has won IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year seven times and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s Vocal Group of the Year six times.
These accolades are considerable for someone who still can’t read music, wouldn’t sing outside his bedroom as a teenager and survived the early years of his professional music career on soup beans, cornbread and kindness.
From Pasadena With Love
Down the road from Gilley’s, the central hub of the “Urban Cowboy” craze in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a teenaged Moore often shut his bedroom door and put a vinyl LP album on the turntable. He mimicked what he heard, emulating chords for the guitar, stand-up bass or mandolin. Or, he just sang and sang.
“I loved music. I knew I enjoyed singing. It was therapeutic. I could be in the worse mood you’ve ever seen and I could go into my bedroom and pick up a guitar or a mandolin, something I was trying to learn at the time, put the needle on the old turntable, and an hour later I was transformed,” Moore reminisced. “I learned to play by taking that needle off the LP and repeating it and repeating it.”
Moore first considered a musical career when he was introduced to the voice of Bluegrass Hall of Famer Bobby Osborne. “My mom would get two to three bluegrass LPs every month from a mail order company. I remember a particular month when she got two Osborne Brothers albums. One was called ‘Voices in Bluegrass’ with some of their all-time greatest hits, and also ‘Favorite Hymns,’ which was an all-Gospel recording,” Moore said.
Moore said the Osborne’s arrangements, song selections and instrumentation was different than any other group at that time. “Like a breath of fresh air!” he exclaimed.
“Bobby’s voice took me to another place; so pure, so clean, so powerful, and seemed effortless. His pitch and his tone just really got under my skin, and I think that is when I really got the bug to be a performer, and to be an artist in bluegrass music. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to affect somebody else the way he affects me with his singing,” Moore related.
At 15, Moore joined his first Bluegrass band, playing the upright bass. It would be several months before he was encouraged to sing for others.
“I wouldn’t sing in front of anybody. I was very shy about it,” Moore admitted. “There came a time when we were working up a new song, and we really needed a good tenor vocalist on it. I think my mom and my dad had been telling the guys that I sang really well, and they talked me into trying it. That opened the door and it hasn’t been shut since. Once I had performed and had gotten some positive feedback, I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe you’re not too bad.’”
Moore said that when he went to listen to touring bluegrass musicians, they were more available than the Gilley’s set. “When we started going to some of those local shows the bluegrass people and the musicians were very friendly and very approachable. Off the stage, you could get right up close to them, and that was intriguing to me,” Moore said. “Those who played bluegrass encouraged you and shared advice with you. That helped a lot.”
Not so with some who performed at clubs like Gilley’s.
“There was kind of a clique that you had to be a part of to break in. In bluegrass, I didn’t have to put on airs. I didn’t have to put on the big cowboy hat. I wear boots a lot, but I’ve never been one to wear Stetson shirts or whatever. That’s not who I am. It’s nice to be able to bring my talent to do what I can do to the table each day, and not have to be someone I’m not,” Moore added.
Bluegrass Country Beckons
At 19, Moore helped create the bluegrass band, Southern Connection, with Mark Keller, Scott Vestal, and Moore’s younger brother Steven, who would later be replaced by Scott Vestal’s brother, Curtis. They were based in Arlington, Texas, playing the circuit around the Dallas Metroplex. There, the band caught the attention of another Hall of Fame performer, Doyle Lawson, who encouraged Southern Connection by getting them their first gig at his festival in North Carolina. In late 1984 and early 1985 the band played several gigs in North Carolina and finally settled in Asheville, playing wherever they could as often as they could. The members pooled their resources, often playing six nights a week.
“Everything we made went into one kitty. We all lived in the same house at that point. With the money we made we paid rent, expenses for the van we drove, and we divided up whatever was left. We met some pretty good people in Asheville. There were three couples that would make a meal for us one night a week. Other times it was a lot of eating soup beans and cornbread. Sometimes we didn’t even get the cornbread,” Moore remembered.
After sharing the stage with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver on several occasions, Moore and the Vestal brothers were hired by Lawson and eventually toured nationally and internationally with him. Finally, the pay was steady and reliable. And, it was with Lawson that Moore experienced opening for country music legend George Jones. “There were a lot of people there, I couldn’t tell you how many, but I think most of them came to see George Jones to be honest with you, and I was one of them,” Moore said.
IIIrd Tyme is a Charm
After six years and seven recordings with Quicksilver, Moore left to form his own band in 1991. Band mates Mike Hartgrove and Ray Deaton joined him. The name of the new group was born from the number of bluegrass bands each of those three had performed with prior. Terry Baucom and Alan Bibey joined soon thereafter.
During the past 26 years, IIIrd Tyme Out’s supporting cast has evolved. Today, it includes Wayne Benson, one of bluegrass music’s leading mandolinists, who has played with Moore for more than two decades. Justen Haynes (fiddle), Keith McKinnon (banjo, harmony vocalist) and Jerry Cole (bass, vocalist) lend their talents and support.
While some bluegrass groups attempt to preserve first-generation style bluegrass, performing traditional songs and not writing a lot of their own, the majority of groups today draw influences from several musical genres, like jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock and roll and, of course, country. “These genres are incorporated into bluegrass somehow, whether it’s chord progressions or slight changes in instrumentation,” Moore said. “It has happened for years. Bluegrass hasn’t always been banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin. There has been dobro and some bands didn’t even have a banjo that played the bluegrass circuit.
“Honestly, I think some of the best musicians in the world are in bluegrass. They are that proficient. They have listened to and incorporated styling and theory in their music. Bela Fleck is a prime example of someone who can take a banjo and make it sound like something you have never heard before,” Moore said.
For both live performances and recordings, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out often put their own spin on songs made popular by other artists, sometimes from other eras and genres.
“We recorded The Platters’ hit, ‘Only You,’ years ago and we weren’t sure how it was going to go over with a bluegrass audience,” Moore said. “The song was A cappella and it had the doo-wop feel to it,” Moore said of the hit song first released in 1955. The first time we performed it was at a bluegrass festival in Florida. It was a two-day event, and I know we performed it four times because the crowd kept asking for it. We can’t do a lot of that, because if we do, it takes us away from what we do best and what our fans expect.
“We don’t live forever, so you have to bring new people in who might appreciate the music. A ballad like ‘Erase the Miles’ that was written by Carl Jackson is still our most requested live song after 26 years,” Moore said. “People love it but there’s no banjo on it. It’s a love song. It might be ‘Only You’ or Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ that might bring them in and that engages them to pay attention to what else we are doing.”
Traditional bluegrass fans will be attracted to Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out’s recent releases like, “Had it Not Been for the Train” or “Brown County Red.” Gospel fans could be reminded of small church worship services while listening to “When I Cross Over Jordan” or “When He Reached Down His Hand for Me.”
Setbacks and Rewards
The early part of a new century presented challenges for IIIrd Tyme Out, as tension fueled a possible disbanding.
“There were a couple of times where I felt that this business is not supposed to be like this. It wasn’t really fun at that time because of other things that were interfering, but I have always enjoyed the music, playing and performing. I think those are what kept me from turning my back on it completely,” Moore said.
In 2013, the end of Moore’s vocal career seemed imminent. He was forced to go completely speechless for six weeks because of a case of acute laryngitis.
“That’s when reality really hit. As a vocalist, I had never really been through anything like that before, and maybe I felt like I was bulletproof up to that point. I never thought it would happen to me. I had had slight cases of laryngitis before and had experienced fatigue that didn’t enable me to perform at the level I like, but that was really scary,” Moore admitted. “The reality was that I might not have a choice of whether I want to do this anymore or not. That choice may have been made for me.
“When my voice finally blew out, we were in Maryland during a sound check. We got through it, but at that point I could barely speak,” Moore said. The ENT physician told him that the good news was he didn’t see any problem with the vocal chord nodules and that no surgery was necessary. However, he had to go on complete vocal rest or his career could be over.
“I couldn’t talk, sing or even whisper. I had to take a note pad and a pen around with me to communicate. It was six weeks of silence,” Moore said. “The first performance after vocal rest was like having to learn all over again. My control was not there, my pitch was not there and my tone was not like it had been, and I thought, is this it? Is this as good as it is going to be? It just took a little time. After a couple weeks it was back to normal. But now, I am very cautious going out to perform when I am having any problems. I used to go and fill the engagement. Now, I just pull the plug and say I am sorry.”
Moore recognizes that he and his band members got into the business to have fun, please themselves and influence others. “There aren’t a lot of gold and platinum records being given out in bluegrass music. It goes back to the old adage: find something you like, do it for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life. There is a lot of truth in that,” Moore affirmed.
“I’ve been awarded, and rewarded, several times over from different organizations for our music,” Moore said humbly. “I am thankful for each and every one of them, but that’s not what it is about. That wasn’t a goal, never has been and still isn’t now. They are just byproducts of doing what I love to do. I am fortunate to be the recipient of those, but I think there are many in this business that still need to be recognized. My ability, first and foremost, is God given. My passion for this music is what drives me to be better or at least maintain some of what I’ve got now.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t setbacks and hard times, and negatives within the business itself, but there is no better feeling than doing something musically where you can say that it felt so good, that it sounded so good and that I am really pleased what I was able to contribute. That gets passed along to someone out there who is listening, and they let you know they really enjoyed it. That’s the biggest compliment you can get as an artist.”
And it doesn’t matter if it’s in Kentucky, or in your own hometown.