What does a recovering journalist do when he’s worked so hard and been briefly at the top of the radio mountain, and then dropped like Old Yeller behind the woodshed, thanks to the economy and NPR cutbacks?
If he’s Bryan Russo, he puts all his pain, disillusion and storytelling brilliance into songwriting.
This is really Part 2 of a Coastal Point article about Russo, written in May 2015 and headlined “Local musician, journalist taking on new challenges.” It’s been a three-year journey, “a really rough few years,” and as a line in one of his news songs goes, he “still don’t know if what’s up ahead is worse than what’s already chasing me.”
But this feels different.
“It’s a mind-blowing opportunity, at last,” said Russo.
In a nutshell, Russo and his cousin, Christopher Shearer, are collaborating on a record that Russo said he knows contains his best and most meaningful work. The joint effort is inspired by Shearer’s mother, Susan Knudson, who died from cancer in 2013.
“Although she was Christopher’s mom, we were very close,” said Russo. “She was super-smart, funny, kind and political. She worked in the food-science field for years but decided to leave her career and stay home with her kids when my uncle started traveling a lot. She was always community-minded, was on the school board and wrote some of the most scathing letters-to-the-editor or politicians that I’ve ever seen. Her humor and wit always bit as hard as her facts and opinions.”
Susan Knudson’s last words to each of the cousins was to “promise that we’d come together and make music that mattered,” said Russo.
After his mom died, Shearer moved from Arizona, where he grew up, to Ocean City, Md., to start over. He took a job at Fager’s Island, running sound for cover bands. For two men who grew up thousands of miles apart and with 10 years’ difference in age, they quickly realized that their musical partnership was stronger than they could imagine. They came up with the name Boys Called Susan.
During that time, they wrote, recorded and produced a record together called “Bryan Russo’s Bargain Scotch, Burdon of Proof.” Its CD release was celebrated in two evenings of performances at the Dickens Parlour Theatre in Millville, where the attendees were each surprised by a gift of the CD from the venue’s owner, Rich Bloch. In tiny print on the corner of the album cover are the initials SMK, in honor of their beloved Susan Knudson.
Just as Russo is an acclaimed singer/songwriter who has shared the stage with more than 30 national recording artists and is a multi-award winning journalist with two Edward R. Murrow Awards to his name, so too is Shearer equally talented. He is an Emmy-award winning composer, producer and musician who has worked in many facets of the music industry, from audio engineer to multi-instrumentalist.
“I grew in a small town called Cabot in the rural area of Western Pennsylvania known as ‘Pennsyltucky,’ and ‘Pennsyltucky’ is what we are calling our debut album,” said Russo. “It’s where my grandparents’ farm was, and where Chris and I got together as kids in the summer.”
Cabot is known for two things: a devastating tornado and the unsolved abduction of Cherrie Mahan on the road leading to their grandfather’s farm in 1985. Cherrie was 8 years old. Russo was 7.
The election of President Trump and his strong support from the people of Pennsyltucky caused Russo pause. What has changed in the area he grew up? Or is it that Russo has changed? His journalistic instinct wanted to be in the middle of it, asking questions, reporting the truth. But those days are over, and so Russo poured his thoughts into songwriting.
In May 2017, after Shearer had returned to Arizona for a good job offer with benefits, Russo wrote some verses that struck a chord within him.
“In trying to figure out the next chapter of my life, I started thinking about the first chapters back home, and then comparing them to where I live now in this rural area, and looking at life in rural America in general,” said Russo.
Their creative process across 2,500 miles was more improbable than impossible, thanks to modern technology. Russo would use a free app on his phone, called Voice Record Pro — one he used to use when reporting from the field. He’d record a song with a simple, guitar accompaniment and text it to Shearer.
Shearer would listen to the song and use another free app on his phone. By the time Russo awoke the next day, he’d received it back from Shearer and heard a fully orchestrated version, with strings and harmony.
“The Ballad of Little Cherrie” was the second song to receive this treatment.
“Nothing changes things like small town’s tragedies,” wrote Russo “That twister did damage, but that twisted man did more, oh little Cherrie, when are you gonna come back home?”
“Once we finished ‘Cherrie,’ it started picking up this crazy head of steam. Within six months, we completed over 25 songs.”
“We knew our work felt really good, but was it just us keeping our creative partnership going despite the distance?” said Russo. “It escalated so quickly it almost felt like Bob Dylan telling us ‘There’s something’s happening here’!”
The cousins started sending demos out to friends and family, including some of the most hardcore music snobs they know — those who would blow those songs out of the water if they weren’t up to snuff. They didn’t have to worry.
“This is the one that could get you on the other side of the velvet rope,” said one.
“The best stuff you’ve ever written,” said another.
“When one of our critics said, ‘This is the record America needs right now,’ we knew we should give this our best shot,” said Russo.
But it takes more than clever writing, harmonic vocals and innovative musicianship to get noticed in the music business. It’s who you know.
A Nashville connection
One of the people Russo had met for an NPR “Coastal Connection” story years ago was Phil Madeira. For the uninitiated, Madeira is a critically acclaimed songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, a member of EmmyLou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys band, and producer for The Civil Wars, The Lone Bellow and countless more music groups.
“We emailed an MP3 to lots of people in the industry, but it was Madeira we really wanted. I love his production ‘Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us,’” said Russo. “It took two months of waiting before hearing back. Then came the email saying he really liked our work, wanted to produce the album and could have the Red Dirt Boys play backup!”
If that wasn’t enough amazing news, the album will be recorded during the first week of May at the Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio in Nashville, Tenn. The studio is co-owned by country legend John Prine and famed producer David Ferguson, who worked with Johnny Cash on some of his final recordings.
“No one dreams to be a company man” is another Russo song line. He had in mind when he wrote it the father of a childhood friend — a man who went to work every day, every year, bulldozing manure at the mushroom pit. That’s not what he wanted to do, but it was what he had to do to bring food to the table. “Company Man” is a blue-collar anthem about carrying on when all goes wrong for the working man.
Russo lost his dream job and subsequently has left journalism altogether. He now makes his living in the solar and wind business, which he admits is not the easiest sell in this area.
Shearer has had two good jobs with benefits, but both were cut due to the economy.
They know firsthand the experience of hardship and loss and, like so many people from either side of the political aisle, they know they have to carry on and move forward. Their songs search for commonalities even in the most divided of times.
As well as “who you know” in the record business, there is also a matter of paying to get the record done. Reluctantly, to fund the recording, Russo and Shearer followed Madeira’s advice with the same kind of Indiegogo crowd-funding effort that preceded “Mercyland” and its sequel, “Mercyland Chapter Two.”
“It’s the way most art is getting made these days,” said Russo. “We’ve been humbled by people’s generosity from near and far.”
(For a sense of playing a small but meaningful part at the beginning of something big, and getting some really cool swag in the process, go to www.BoysCalledSusan.com.)
“I’m excited and terrified at the same time,” said Russo. “I’m thankful that at age 40 opportunities are still coming my way, and fortunate to have the super support of my family. Who knows what happens after this? I’ve learned that life is what happens when you are making other plans, but I do know that if we go down swinging, we’ll go down with the best songs we’ve ever written.”
The lead sentence on their website reads, “If it were up to us, Boys Called Susan wouldn’t be a thing, and Susan Knudson would still be here.”
“My dear Aunt Sue told us there was something between us musically before we ever truly considered it. She’s still always right!”
Somewhere in the hereafter, I can picture Susan Knudson rubbing her hands with glee, knowing her boys are making music that matters, and willing the world to listen. And you know to look for her initials in tiny print on the corner of the cover of “Pennsyltucky” by Boys Called Susan.
By Christina Weaver
Special to the Coastal Point