Bryan Russo is a storyteller with two voices and many hats.
The first is his speaking voice that many Delmarvans looked forward to hearing every Friday at noon and Saturday at 5 a.m. on his NPR show, “Coastal Connection,” on WAMU-88.3. The second is his singing voice — once described as “a big, bluesy voice that wallops audiences with soulful lyrics that bite.”
The hats — often trilbies — are what you see and may remember initially, until you are moved by the memory of what he says or sings.
Until recently, the music side provided spiritual balance to his hectic life as an acclaimed journalist and popular local personality. It was all too perfect, perhaps: a loving wife who runs the Worcester County, Md., branch of Habitat for Humanity, two great kids, a home in Berlin, Md., and a job he loved.
Now the balance has shifted, and he is singing the blues — telling his stories, quite literally, with greater experiential understanding than ever before.
“They told me just before Christmas that the show would be canceled by the end of January,” Russo said. “It apparently didn’t matter that I had won 18 AP (Associated Press) awards for them and two Edward R. Murrows. Delmarva didn’t matter.”
“How do you tell your kids to look forward to a world of work when they see their 37-year-old, hard-working dad get fired because the organization’s new management style values the bottom line over recognized excellence?” asked Russo.
Indeed, how do you stay positive when the two really good opportunities for new positions fall through because the middle-class income which you are counting on to pay your mortgage is more than they want to pay, even though they know, and you know, that you are worth every penny?
What do you say when you go on a field trip with your kid’s class who looked up to you on career day and now they say they’re sorry you lost your job and sidle away? Those are the questions that eat at the soul of Bryan Russo.
“I know I’m not the only one in this situation, in this economy,” said Russo. “But when it happens to you and it’s your story, it can really get to you. But then I think of the people I’ve interviewed over the years, like the homeless man who lived in a makeshift tent, hidden in the woods outside West Ocean City, who almost died in the cold, and realize there are so many who are much worse off.”
By listening carefully, connecting with his subjects and deftly encouraging just the right responses to resonate with his radio audience, Russo reported on almost every topic of local interest for five years.
It was the people of Delmarva, their memories, experiences and aspirations who provided the inspiration for his stories. Those stories have ranged from struggling veterans to hard-nosed politicians, wonders of space to precariousness of nature, delights of food to the devil of addiction, and music, art and theater of every description.
“And whenever a storm came through, my dining room became weather-central,” he said.
Russo’s last big story was about a blind and otherwise disabled Maryland boy with an extraordinary ear for music and knack for playing the harmonica. It was one that was particularly important to him. He took time to get to know and relate to the family and then research, write, record, edit and produce the piece. He used it as an example of his work to a national broadcasting network where he was interviewing. They asked to keep his material as they evaluated his credentials and salary expectation.
“I heard from the boy’s dad before I got my rejection letter,” said Russo. “He called, out of respect to me, telling me he had a call from that same organization wanting to do another report. Of course I told him ‘Yes,’ as I wanted him to get as much publicity as possible. But I was saddened when they used my words, almost verbatim, with no credit to me at all. It reinforced in my mind how unoriginal and unethical journalism, my chosen career, is becoming.”
And so the balance for Bryan Russo, for the moment, has shifted to his music. He plays solo, with a blues band, Bryan Russo & the Tragic Figures, and for a smoother, jazzier sound with Ryan Mete as Bargain Scotch. “It’s all blues,” said Russo.
“Bloody brilliant,” is how blues legend John Mayall described Bryan Russo & the Tragic Figures after they opened for him, and that sentiment is echoed by their many fans. The Tragic Figures are Brett Conaway on drums, John Sybert on bass and Mike Noyes on harmonica.
“Bryan is one of the world’s good guys and a real friend,” said Conaway, a born-and-bred local man whose family business is Fenwick Island’s Dairy Queen. He has played with Russo for 10 years.
Despite being a classically trained violinist and expert pianist and guitarist, Russo still thinks of himself as a storytelling singer-songwriter, rather than musician. He will open for various acts at the Bottle & Cork this summer and can be heard regularly at High Stakes and Matteo’s Salsa Loco, both in Fenwick Island. (His gig list is on his website.)
But his music alone will not pay the mortgage. So what is in Bryan Russo’s future?
Perhaps it will be a continuation of work he has started, making videos and documentaries. On his website at www.bryanrusso.com, one can view the initial episodes of “Curtain Call: Historic Theaters of the Eastern Shore.” One is about the small town of Onancock, Va., and the story of its residents’ fight to keep the arts alive at the North Street Playhouse. It is fascinating and wondrously crafted, with conversation, commentary, music and scenery. It makes one want to take a day-trip and go to a performance.
Brian Shane, Russo’s friend and fellow journalist, films and edits the work.
“We are a team,” said Shane. “Bryan has the vision. He wants to shine a light on our old theaters and the people who are devoted to them. He is the frontman who writes, directs and sings. I am the back of the house. I think we are part of something exciting.”
Future episodes of “Curtain Call” will include Dickens Parlor Theatre and the Avalon Theater. When the series is complete, Russo and Shane hope to sell it to one of the national television outlets.
Russo has a big idea for a documentary. It’s about an important historical figure from the Eastern Shore whose story and music have faded and are in danger of being lost forever. He has done the research and believes it has significant potential. An individual in Hollywood already indicated interest, but it will be an expensive project and more sponsors will be needed.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always learned on the job. This could be my most ambitious venture yet, the culmination of all I’ve done. It’s like I climbed to the top of the radio mountain and now I’m so ready to tackle the challenge of a brand new mountain. It’s a bit scary.”
It will be the basis for Part 2 of this story…