At 57, Monty Russell has developed a signature look fitting for a guitarist who plays country, gospel, and bluegrass. He often elects to wearing denim on denim, a Stetson Open Road 10x Straw Cowboy Hat, and black boots to finish it off. As a spirited man and an even livelier musician, Monty has collected as many experiences on the road as he has gigging throughout Northeast Louisiana. One of the songs Monty is currently working on has the line, “I could have been a doctor or a lawyer, but then he handed me this guitar.” That sentiment encompasses the role that music has played in his life. And, though he has toured expansively, at this point in his career he has learned that an affinity for one’s home is just as important as growing through travel.
His grandfather, a self-taught piano player, showed Monty the musical ropes when he was just eight years old. “He taught me how to take a flat top [guitar] and lay it out and he tuned it to an open G,” recalls Monty. “And he gave me a buck knife, and I moved that buck knife across the tops of the guitar making open chords.” The first time he played on stage was in Spencer, Louisiana at a jamboree that would take place every Saturday night. Monty stood right beside his grandfather, still a boy of eight, holding his guitar. From that point forward he began playing gospel quartets at church, with bluegrass and country bands, and eventually high school rock bands. But, when he got married and had kids, Monty decided to take a job as a police officer at the Ruston Police Department. Though he continued playing, it wasn’t as consistent as he would have liked. “When you work for the PD, they kind of frown on you playing bars and things where you mostly get paid, but I still played a lot of church, a lot of fairs, and festivals,” he explains. By the time he turned thirty, he had worked ten years as an officer and expended that fun, coming to the realization that his real passion was playing music. “So I started playing all the time.” He booked venues, toured festivals, and got radio play. “It was a really good period,” he says. At forty years old, Monty retired from the police department and continued with the concert business as a talent buyer at places like Rabb’s Steakhouse and festivals, in addition to touring. “Finding the balance of the right acts for venues was difficult,” he says. Though he consistently plays his original music during his sets, he has managed to balance that with the usual anticipated covers. His experiences playing for others has also enlightened him to the generational gap within genres like rock and roll. “It’s surprising to me how many people say ‘I want to rock, man.’ That might mean four different types of rock.” He laughs, adding, “That became a job, just trying to balance what made money versus still trying to throw artists that we really like too.”
While Monty draws inspiration from a few Americana greats, he names his grandfather Leon Russell as the most influential artist in his life. Though his grandfather had put his juke joint days behind him by the time Monty started to play with him, he was still flooded with stories of when Leon would play from six to ten o’clock on a Friday at a white country barn dance, and head to a Black juke joint at midnight and play until the sun came up. “He just loved playing music and he was known around the region for being a musician.” Other home-grown idols for Monty include Kenny Bill Stinson, who played a range of roots music like blues, rock and roll, country, and rockabilly. “He’s only a little bit older, but he’d already been off and played, you know, around the world, and I saw him one time at Railroad Park, and I’m going like, holy cow, that guy’s from here, you know. He lives here and plays this world-class music. I scooped up any chance I could to play with him.” Monty considers himself fortunate to frequently play with local musicians like General Keith Patterson. Even then, he doesn’t downplay sharing the stage with household names like Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels. “I’ve played with so many great people, I take a lot away from them,” laughs Monty.
As a young musician, the guitarist believed success meant moving to Nashville or Los Angeles. He was itching to just “go somewhere.” He recalls that “back in the 90s, if you weren’t Garth Brooks, you weren’t making it.” But, when he started traveling to Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas, he met guys “putting out some very artistic stuff,” and, in his book, “making a big living.” Friends of his have managed to sell about two to three thousand tickets a night in Texas. Some ventures to Nashville landed him in Billy Block’s Western Beat, a live concert-format radio show. There he started to fall in with the “Americana folks,” and Monty began to feel like he belonged. “It was a good feeling to walk in or open a show for somebody like Dwight Yoakam,” he says. Once, he and General Patterson opened for the band Blues Traveler and were concerned the crowd wasn’t going to vibe with their set, even though the band had specifically requested them for the gig. “We went out there, rowdy, two-piece, and the next thing you know, John Popper is on stage with us, playing harmonica,” reveals Monty, adding, “And then, he’s calling us every time he comes to the South to be his opening act.” Things were coming together for Monty and around 2008 he started producing some records, for himself and other artists. Currently, he produces close to twenty artists. “They’re all younger than me. Everybody’s younger than me now,” he chuckles.
Monty’s songwriting skills are notable. His dedication to the craft intensified a few years ago when he realized his writing had been growing “stale.” As a result, he obtained a master’s degree in English from Louisiana Tech University. “There’s nothing like being forced to read a novel a week to inspire you,” he says. Normally, Monty gleans the material for his songs from conversations, so he jokingly warns people to be careful what they say around him. His collaborations with other artists has accelerated his productivity, to the point that he is able to write seven to eight songs with one of his peers before even heading to the studio. Instinctively, Monty gravitates toward the distinct music of Louisiana and blends it with influences from Texas-based singer/songwriters like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “You couldn’t define Gatemouth Brown,” says Monty. Brown was known for being a pluralistic artist that would incorporate big orchestra swing and blues songs in the same set. Thus far, Monty has released four albums including Fat Man (2018) and The Fool (2006) and has a few projects in the works, like a full gospel album once he has at least twelve original songs. As a grandfather to five grandbabies and another on the way, he hopes to dabble in a record of children’s lullabies. Keeping the attitude that time is on his side, Monty is also in the process of completing a musical he originally wrote as his Master’s thesis. “I’m just trying to catch up from the pandemic. We had a lot of production projects when the pandemic hit. We’re just trying to catch up.”
“If I’m not playing music, I’m reading about music, and trying to teach.” He takes that attitude on the road, especially with the young guys. “They probably get sick of it.” He considers it important as a musician to understand what the music you play is built on. “It didn’t just happen. It happened from blues guys in the 20s. It happened from spirituals and juke joints, you know, and sides of the road. Truck parades in New Orleans,” he asserts. Considering himself part of a line of “musicologists” that relish digging up stories and visiting landmarks of music history, Monty doesn’t have starry eyes. Instead, he is grounded in the undercurrent of what makes American music thrive, and for him, that has always been close to the Delta among the winding bayous that saturate southern earth.
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