With their fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, cello and ukulele harmonies combined with sweet voices and dance moves, the Russell Clan, as the family band from Guthrie has become known, took first place in the 2018 KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest held in Branson on May 26.
Braden (23), Blaine (21), Seth (19), Sadie (17), Adelyn (15), John (13) and Stephen (10) enjoy making music together along with their father, Brian Russell, who grew up playing piano and saxophone in his school band before learning guitar and other instruments.
This wasn’t the first time the family has competed in the nation-wide search for top bluegrass youth bands. The seven siblings have performed at the contest on five occasions over the last eight years, placing twice before and claiming the grand prize this year. From the audition tapes received, only 20 bands were accepted to compete in the national contest where they played in a packed Opera House vying for thousands of dollars in prize money.
“Oh! The sweet sound of mandolins, banjoes and more with beautiful voices full of true inspiration,” the Silver Dollar City Attractions Facebook page said concerning the talent. The Russell Clan performed four numbers at the contest along with aspiring musicians from 12 states, and videos of their performances are available on YouTube. (Link to Russell Clan’s Lady Of The Sea performance: https://youtu.be/ykoWxduPNAU)
The bands used only a single microphone and were judged based on their instrumental and vocal abilities, professionalism, and audience reaction.
Of the four songs they played, Lady Of The Sea stood out as the family’s favorite to perform.
“I really like the story and the Celtic feel,” Adelyn Russell said. “It’s about a ship crashing in a storm.”
The band had prepared a special surprise for the crowd in the song as Blaine’s fiddle solo began and Adelyn handed off her instrument to her father. Her feet added rhythm and style with an Irish dance, and the Irish/folk/bluegrass fusion was a hit as the upbeat and fun performance got the crowd involved.
“People thought it was so unique and it made us stand out,” Adelyn Russell said.
Sadie Russell enjoys the different rhythms dancing can create. “My sister and I love to dance,” she said. “It’s like drumming with your feet.”
“The song is so simple arrangement-wise. It was fun because we were able to throw in a funk groove that Adelyn could dance to,” Seth Russell said. “The visual part of a show is about 60% of what an audience perceives, so it’s really important to put on a good show.”
As first place winners of the 17th Annual Silver Dollar City/Youth in Bluegrass competition, the certainly did just that as they earned the $1,500 grand prize check.
While the family didn’t start as fans of Bluegrass style, they have grown to appreciate its drive—especially when fused with Irish tunes.
“When we moved to Guthrie eight years ago, we didn’t know anything about Bluegrass,” Maris Russell, matriarch of the clan, said.
Before their move to Guthrie, they had discovered the joy of Celtic music at the Irish Music festival in Stillwater. They attended the festival’s workshops annually and progressed so much that they are now teaching those same classes.
“I really like that genre and the sounds all put together,” John Russell said.
23-year-old Braden Russell, the eldest son who was unable to compete this year as he is now over the contest age limit, was the first of the children to express interest in music. As a youngster he began fiddle lessons once a week with Annabelle Cones in Oklahoma City. Before long, his siblings joined in the fun and the family band began. Braden now has a band of his own, Sensible Shoes, who performed at May’s Red Brick Nights celebration.
“Playing music together has drawn us close as a family,” Maris Russell said.
The family spends many of their evenings making music together.
“Every night we have to get together to work on something. Playing together as a family helps us really tighten up and create,” Adelyn said.
“I like that it forces us to stay connected,” Blaine Russell said. “We have to work on discipline and getting along. (Music) is like learning another language that you share when you play with someone.”
The family practiced with a metronome for several weeks leading up to the contest and 10-year-old Stephen Russell stepped up musically as one of the youngest contestants. He practiced his fiddle relentlessly to play up to speed with his siblings.
“I felt joy and I also felt bad for my friends that didn’t place,” he said about winning, but “it felt really good.”
The Russell Clan’s Lady Of The Sea performance can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/ykoWxduPNAU