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BGS 5+5: Zach Russell

Dec 1, 2023

BGS 5+5: Zach Russell

Artist: Zach Russell
Hometown: Caryville, Tennessee
Latest Album: Where The Flowers Meet The Dew (out December 1)

Which artist has influenced you the most – and how?

I’ve always looked up to Willie Nelson. In my opinion, he is the top tier as far as “artists” go. He wrote many great songs, but wasn’t against recording others’ great songs. His work is of substance and quality, but catchy and with mass appeal. He ebbed and flowed with the styles of the times, but it never felt inauthentic. He had success in the pop realm, then went back to Texas and started the outlaw movement. He has released 100 studio albums. He is still touring at 90 years old. He has a massive marijuana company.

As he said at the very beginning of his Yesterday’s Wine album, “The voice of Imperfect Man must now be made manifest and I have been selected as the most likely candidate.” I mean, come on. That’s as cool as it gets.

What other art forms – literature, film, dance, painting, etc. – inform your music?

I am a big fan of literature, especially Appalachian authors like Lee Smith, Amy Greene, Silas House, and Wendell Berry, but my favorite being John Steinbeck, a California native. I believe reading good literature keeps my mind’s eye in good shape and subconsciously strengthens my sense for imagery.

A song can be seen like a book. Though, in a song you don’t get hundreds of pages to make your point. You get three and a half minutes, some 32ish lines, to get across a story or feeling. You can’t waste a single word. Each line needs to fracture out in a hundred different directions once it enters the listeners mind. I don’t think I ever would have gotten that had it not been for good literature.

How often do you hide behind a character in a song or use “you” when it’s actually “me”?

Nothing against characters in songs, but I wouldn’t create one to hide behind. If I wanted to hide something I wouldn’t write a song about it. Art is largely about bravery.

If I cried and that is an important part of the story, I’ll say that I cried. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be taken literally, though. Sometimes they are meant to be seen mythically, meaning whether it’s true or not is not what is important. But no, never to hide.

What has been the best advice you’ve received in your career so far?

Be kind and be a good hang. Being fun to be around and a nice person will get you gigs over more talented players. I didn’t understand that at first, but now that I hire musicians I get it. You spend a lot more time sharing space with people than you do playing together.

Which elements of nature do you spend the most time with and how do those impact your work?

I spend a good amount of time thinking about my local world: All the local trees and wildlife, the Clinch River and the waterways that feed it, when things bloom, what eats what, and the general way things tend to go. I think if you pay enough attention to the natural world you could accidentally learn all kinds of secret stuff. I believe I have. I’m not really sure what, but things are different now. And I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that it was only after I moved back home to the mountains of East Tennessee that people started paying attention to what I was doing. Maybe it makes it easier to know where things wanna go, or what comes next.

Photo Credit: Emma Delevante

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BGS 5+5: Zach Russell
BGS 5+5: Zach Russell