Boys Called Susan’s Debut Album, Pennsyltucky — The Sights and Sounds of Small Town U.S.A.
Boys Called Susan, first cousins Bryan Russo and Christopher Shearer, share their deep love for American music in their first single to radio, “Company Man,” off their just released debut album, Pennsyltucky.
The duo wouldn't exist without the request made by Shearer's beloved mother and Russo's aunt, Susan Knudson, who lost a long and grueling battle with ovarian cancer in 2013.
“We realized that we both had very similar final conversations with her," recalls Russo. "She made us individually promise that we'd come together and make music that mattered. Once Chris got out here [Maryland], it didn’t take long to witness that something truly magical was happening. Chris always had an ear for melody and arranging, but the moment our voices blended together in my dining room... it’s like I could hear my aunt laughing, 'See, I told you so.'”
The band name is also a nod to the Shel Silverstein poem that Johnny Cash made into the famous hit, “Boy Named Sue”.
Tell us a little about yourselves and how you started in the country music industry.
Country music is something Bryan and I grew up with, but didn’t appreciate when we were younger. As I got older, I got into artists from the golden age of country/rock n roll through more contemporary indie/country artists like Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Iron and Wine. I’m very much someone who likes to listen to my influences’ influences. So, as I matured and became more focused on songwriters and balladeers it was impossible to miss Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and the Everly Brothers.
Our Pap always loved country and played it ad nauseam in his farm truck. He loved Willie and Waylon, and I remember that being really cool for me to be able to tell him that I played shows a few years ago with both of their sons (Lukas and Shooter, respectively.) The stories in those old country tunes led me to the blues, and then to Dylan and Tom Waits and Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. I love a good story and I love a song that has a way with words.
My first memories of country music were staring out the window in the back of my grandparent's Oldsmobile station wagon listening to Kenny Rogers weave these elaborate song stories together. To this day, I stop whatever I'm doing if I hear "Coward of the County." That song had such a profound effect on me, and I still feel like we are all just trying to metaphorically fight off one last Gatlin boy in our lives. I don't know if all that qualifies us for entry into the country music "industry", per se, but we are currently industry-less so I'd be remiss if we didn't consider all offers.
How important is it to you to write your own songs?
It's my favorite thing in the world to do, other than watching my daughter surf or my son play punk rock in his band. I live in a place where cover bands rule and I've always been a weird anomaly there because I'd rather bomb playing my own tunes than make a career of butchering the Beatles at a tiki bar to tourists who just want to get drunk on Pina Coladas while ignoring the live human playing music in the corner. I know people who do that, and some are great friends of mine, but now that I'm not a journalist anymore, writing is that much more important to me in the way I communicate with the world and work through things that are happening around me. I'm not very good at dinner parties.
We would be writing these songs and playing them to the grand audience of nobody if that was what was in the cards because these songs are a sort of emotional autobiography for us. They will always bring us back to moments in time that we were working on that song. Not just “when I came up with that great bridge” or “recorded that great solo” but what was going on in our personal lives at those moments as well.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
'Pennsyltucky' was written and arranged entirely on our cell phones from 3,000 miles apart. When we went to Nashville, Bryan and I hadn’t played a note in the same zip code in over a year. Generally, Bryan would write the melody, chord progression, and the lyrics out. He would then record himself singing and playing the acoustic guitar using the voice recorder on the iPhone and send me that track. I would take that raw file and dump it into good ol' GarageBand and record all of the other instruments and harmony’s and send it back and forth until we were both happy with it. Bryan is absurdly prolific and we were up to about 25 songs by the time Phil decided to roll the dice on us. We still work like that as we have our rolls down to a science at this point.
I've been blessed to play with a lot of talented people over the years, but Chris is the first person that I ever shared writing duties with. Everybody talks about the family factor of two voices blending together, but for us, that "kin-thing" is evident in the way we work together. Writing songs was not a democratic process for me until this geographic exercise that somehow turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. I've never had more fun writing songs than I have with Chris. It'll be even more fun when we aren't living 3000 miles apart again.
Can you share the back stories to the songs you wrote on your album?
When I lost my public radio job in 2015, I was a mess, and I was scared out of my mind that I wouldn't be able to keep my family together. I had worked as a journalist for 15 years at a high level, had a wall full of awards, my own show, and loved the work I was doing locally and the opportunities I was getting nationally and even internationally. So, in trying to figure out where I was going next, I found myself looking back a lot. That took me back to my upbringing in Pennsylvania, and inevitably, back to my grandparent's farm. So, I started trying to mine meaning out of stories I'd been told and scenes that I'd lived.
As a kid, you often want to move away as quickly as you can, and then you get older and you find yourself comparing where you are with where you came from, and in a way, nothing ever eclipses the original sense of home. So, "Girl from Pennsyltucky" best personifies that idea on the record, and songs like "Degrees of Misery", "Pretty Pantomime", and maybe even "Unfinished Symphony" talk about the struggles of trying to keep love and hope alive when the money's gone, morale is low, and it looks like the light at the end of a tunnel is, in fact, a train. "Company Man" and even "Rodeo Cool" are blue collar anthems of different varieties.
"Unfinished Symphony" is a song I wrote for a friend of mine from college who lost her husband to brain cancer. Here I was, depressed and struggling to get my shit together after losing a job, and she lost her soulmate and just seemed to carry herself with this unbelievable strength and grace. I wanted to write a song about trying to redefine who you are when you lose the person that is everything to you.
There's stories in all of these songs. "Forbidden Fruit" is a scene I remember seeing in church when I was a kid. A guy making eyes with a lady in the choir who was not his wife. The song, however, is about restraint as much as it's about desire. I love that it sounds like a debaucherous Rolling Stones campfire song for that very reason. "Home Team" is about the polarization and the divisiveness that exists in America in 2018. But rather than rail against the volatility, it looks for common ground and it shows just how unbelievably sad this current time is for humanity.
"The Ballad of Little Cherie" is a true story and one that as soon as I wrote it, the record was always going to go in this direction. It's the loss of innocence and what tragedy does to small towns. In those days, "stranger danger" was the scariest thing for parents and now, my kids worry about some crazy person with a gun coming into their school or a being stuffed in a van by some human trafficker in a public restroom. Cherie's story changed my life and a lot of other people's lives who grew up in that region. It's one of the most infamous cold cases in American history and that happened on my grandparent's country road. "Heaven Knows" is the celebration of finally coming full circle.
What was the favorite moment of your career up to this point?
This whole experience has been an absolute roller coaster of feels and it’s tough to pick one moment. If I was forced to do so, having Bryan call me at work to tell me that Phil Madeira agreed to produce our record and that we would be recording with Sean Sullivan (Grammy winning engineer who tracked Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailors Guide to Earth”) and that he was bringing in members of Emmy Lou Harris’ touring band The Red Dirt Boys to back us still seems like it was a dream.
There's been a few crazy moments for me. John Mayall (The Godfather of British Blues) patting me on the shoulder and saying "you're bloody brilliant" after I came off the stage when I opened for him was a big deal for me. Same with the guys playing in Marshall Tucker Band literally waiting for me in my dressing room after my opening set and making some mind-blowingly erroneous comment comparing me and Bruce Springsteen. But in hindsight, all of those things happened when I was opening for other people, and enjoying being in the musical universe they've created with their fans. I just got to enhance that for 30 or 40 minutes. This record we did together, in honor of my Aunt Sue, and there's no way in the world you could have ever scripted how this record got made. So, I'd have to say the day this record came in the mail, and I held it in my hands, that's been my favorite moment.
Where's your bucket list venue to play?
I could die a happy man the day after we played any of the following venues. The Royal Albert Hall in London, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, or the Hollywood Bowl in LA. Go big or go home right?
The quest for 'venues' have always created some of the most bittersweet moments in my career. I got to play the 9:30 club in Washington DC for the first time, on the exact same day as my public radio career was 'Ol Yellered' in brutal budget cuts. When one of my old bands thought we won this big "contest" to play with the Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly in 2011, we got put on a side stage, told the band was 'too busy to meet us', and we got ripped off by the promoter and made no money. But, we got to play for a few thousand people and back then, it was a big deal for a bunch of guys from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to do a show like that. Certainly, any of those venues Chris mentioned are hallowed. But, because of the aforementioned, I'd rather chase a song than a venue. Good songs are what get you there, right?!
Tell us what your fans mean to you and how you include them in your journey.
It would be impossible to put into words what the people who’ve been supporting us through this whole process mean to us. Whether they generously donated money to help us get this record done or let me obsessive bounce demos off of them to make sure something was actually good, or made one of their friends listen to us, we are perpetually and eternally grateful. We have been truly humbled by the support we’ve received so far and it’s something that I will never, ever forget or take for granted.
We had five weeks to raise an awful lot of money to get this record made, and honestly, that was the part I was most scared of. I knew we could go down there and punch above our weight musically speaking and come back home with the best thing either of us had ever done. I just didn't know if anyone would care enough about our music or us to help us. So, when people got behind us and did what they did, it is not hyperbole to say that we would love to show them the depths of our gratitude through yard work or homemade casseroles. When I grew up, if someone did something nice for you, you make them a casserole, or you go help them do a project. For now, I guess, these songs will have to do.
If you could put together a tour which artists would you take with you?
In a perfect world, I would love to go on the road with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Blake Mills. I’m a massive fan of all of them and their music means the world to me. To get to share the stage with any of them would be an absolute privilege.
I want to be a part of any show that has Low Cut Connie on it. Those cats are the truth. When Chris first moved out to Maryland after his mom died, I played on a bill with them, and we became friends. Wanda Jackson was supposed to headline the festival and she missed her flight, so the promoter took me and Low Cut Connie and moved us to the main stage to close the night. You get tight with folks pretty quickly when you are pushing a 400-pound piano up a hill. It's so cool to watch your friends do the extraordinary and their meteoric rise in the last year or two has been so cool to watch.
But to be honest, I think some of the best songs written today are being written by female artists, and as the father of a 10-year old girl, I think women need to lead more, and that includes headlining festivals and shows. We named this group after a woman who helped shape us into the men we are today and she was the first feminist we knew, and someone with a strength in her voice that is still unparalleled. If we put together a tour, I'd want to open for them.
What would surprise your fans to learn about you?
I think our fans would be surprised to know that Bryan and I both are classically trained musicians. I grew up taking 10 years of piano lessons, and was a regional orchestra string bassist in high school. Bryan also played violin in high school, and got to play alongside the Pittsburgh Symphony during his studies.
We are both terrible dancers.
Who's currently on your playlist (who are you listening to?)
Currently I’ve been listening to Conor Obersts albums “Ruminations” and “Salutations”
Blake Mills “Break Mirrors”
Amy Winehouse “Back to Black”
Ray Charles “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music”
The Everly Brothers “The Golden Hits of the Everly Brothers”
Randy Newman: I got to interview him on my public radio show back in 2011. I've never been more nervous. I feel about him the way most folks in Nashville feel about Willie Nelson. He's a national treasure. If you want to feel better about our crazy polarized world, put your headphones on and listen to Randy Newman in an airport.
Jason Isbell: I had always admired his work, but I guess I was a little late to the party on the true genius of the way he crafts songs. Then when I wrote "Home Team" for this record, I had convinced myself that I had ripped him off, so I went through his entire catalog to make sure I hadn't. When I realized that the song was mine, I was left with that excitement coupled with the sheer devastation that exists when you listen to "Elephant" for the first time.
Brandi Carlile: Her whole catalog. She slays me. I want to go bowling with her and the twins, or maybe just deliver flowers to the place where they practice their harmonies and quietly stand there in the corner and never ask for payment. She might be the most important artist on the planet right now.
Name 3 things you always have with you.
When I’m on the road recently I always have about 3-4 books I’m reading, my headphones, and I have a secondary iPhone that I’ve been using exclusively for writing with Bryan.
A grocery list, A set of keys to a broken-down vehicle (it's got my house keys on it), a wallet filled with very little actual US currency.
What's your favorite candy? book? guilty pleasure?
Reading and writing are hugely important to our family. My sister, Bryan, and I have all spent some amount of time as journalists so we’re constantly trading books. I’m a massive Hunter S Thompson fan and it seems fitting to classify him as a guilty pleasure! Candy wise I have a weakness for chocolate and peanut butter. It’s one of those unstoppable combos like money and power.
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers changed my life in the same way as JD Vance's Hilbilly Elegy did recently. The irony is someone who heard the phone demos turned me onto the book and when I read it, it just floored me." My favorite candy is those little lollipops they give you at the bank drive-thru windows. My guilty pleasure is British soccer which closely rivals my admiration for Huey Lewis and the News.
What does the next year hold in store for you?
It’s hard to say, we’ve been trying to read the tea leaves but every time we think that we know what’s coming life sends a sharp right or left turn in our path. We’ve spent all year rolling with one crazy punch after another. We’d love to get out on the road some to play these songs live for people, and try to share these songs that are so important with us with as many folks as we can.
I have absolutely no idea what happens from here. Creatively speaking, I'm excited for Chris and I to be in the zip code so that will be great. Hopefully, the number of people who dig these songs will be continuing to grow and we're going to keep punching above our weight until someone throws us out of the proverbial ring or knocks us the hell out. I know what I'd like to be happening a year from now, but the only industry seemingly more anxiety inducing and soul crushing than music is journalism, and I'm just coming out of a 3 year depression from all that. So, since none of this was planned other than promising that we'd do this together for Sue. The fact that we made this record, and people are reacting to it in the way that they so far, anything that happens from here is a something I will put in the gratitude category.
Pennsyltucky Track Listing:
1. Slumlords of Paradise (Russo/Shearer)
2. Unfinished Symphony (Russo/Shearer)
3. Forbidden Fruit (Russo/Shearer)
4. Degrees of Misery (Russo/Shearer)
5. Pretty Pantomime (Russo/Shearer)
6. Company Man (Russo/Shearer)
7. Girl From Pennsyltucky (Russo/Shearer)
8. Rodeo Cool (Russo/Shearer)
9. The Home Team (Russo/Shearer)
10. Ballad of Little Cherie (Russo/Shearer)
11. Heaven Knows (Russo/Shearer)
For more information on Boys Called Susan - www.boyscalledsusan.com