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Sonoma musician Kevin Russell honored by the Western Swing Society. -by Tim Curley  10/6/23


He will add his name to a few others that might be familiar to local music lovers.


Sunday, Oct. 1, was a pretty big day in the life of one of our local musicians.

Kevin Russell woke up a humble, affable and content guitar player, singer, songwriter, radio personality, concert promoter and family therapist. By the time he had enjoyed pulled pork and Cobb salad for dinner, he had been honored as the newest member of the Western Swing Society at its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

No easy task, being in any hall of fame. First, it takes years of practice and you need to be quite accomplished. Russell certainly checks that. To actually be inducted, one must be nominated by the member of the hall, and then be voted in by the selection committee, which consists of five current hall of famers.

The celebration lasts three long and swinging days, and “there is lots of dancing,” according to hall president Ronnie Elkan.

The Western Swing Society was founded in 1981 as a means to provide a focus to and promote Western Swing music and note its importance as a subgenre of American jazz. Western swing also has hints of blues, Dixieland, ragtime, big-band, country, swing and pop.

Two elements of Western swing that are shared with those styles are improvisation and Dixieland — in particular, the “breakdown.”

Improvisation is commonly heard in the free-form solos of musicians. It is usually played around the melody rather than with the melody (but not always). Skilled musicians love to

improvise. A “breakdown” is a passage of improvisation, either solo or by the entire band.

Another important element of Western swing is its heavy accent on the beat and its danceability. All in all, Western swing is a fun and infectious musical style, and Russell has been recognized as a master of the genre.

The recognition of Russell’s talent comes after many years of playing “three chords and the truth” in several bands in the North Bay. He’s been a member of the Modern Hicks, Under the Radar and Laughing Gravy, and now fronts the Familiar Strangers.

Russell joins a few other people in the hall that might be familiar to Sonoma music lovers. Sonoma County native Paul Shelasky, who regularly plays violin and fiddle in Thomsen’s band, was inducted to the hall with Russell this year.

Valley of the Tunes native Tommy Thomsen was inducted in 1995. Sean Allen, a Telecaster wizard, was given the nod in 2003. Last year, violin and fiddle master Candy Girard was inducted.

Past inductees include music legends Gene Autry and Merle Haggard. In the strangely incestuous world of Sonoma County bands, Thomsen often plays with Allen and Shelasky. Girard and Allen are regular members of Russell’s Familiar Strangers band. Birds of a feather, and all that.

Thomsen and Russell regularly perform at Murphy’s Irish Pub in Sonoma.

The local hall of fame members mentioned above, except Thomsen, are all playing in a big Gram Parson/Emmylou Harris tribute show produced by Russell on Nov. 4 at the California Theater in Santa Rosa.                                                            Others performing that night will be Doug Jayne, Jill Rogers, Myles Boisen, Loralee Christensen, Paul Olguin, Dave Zirbel and Shannon Rider.

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