BERLIN – What started out as a series of late-night phone demos and tireless perseverance has turned into a recording opportunity in Nashville for one local musician and his cousin.
Next week, Berlin musician Bryan Russo and his cousin, Chris Shearer, will make their way to Nashville, where they will work alongside award-winning songwriter, musician and producer Phil Madeira and Emmylou Harris’ backing band, Red Dirt Boys, to record their first album under the collective group name Boys Called Susan.
“We wanted to write a timely piece of American music that sounds timeless,” Russo said, “and we wanted to do a record in honor of our lost relative and do something together as kin.”
The group’s name pays homage to Shearer’s late mother, Susan Knudson, who encouraged the two to make music together before her death in 2013.
“She believed in us and saw something musically that we didn’t even realize,” Russo said.
Creating music together, however, did come with its challenges. In addition to finding their “sound,” the cousins had to overcome years of long-distance relationships. Russo was born and raised in Pennsylvania and Shearer grew up in Arizona.
“I knew Chris was very accomplished, but we didn’t spend that much time together,” Russo said. “So the only time we’d spent time together … was at my grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania.”
Shortly after his mother’s death, Shearer traveled from Arizona to spend time with his cousin.
“She passes away and two months later I ended up going to visit Bryan in Maryland for the first time,” Shearer said. “I helped him with a bunch of shows, hung out with him and we got to know each other as adults.”
After some time in Maryland, Shearer and Russo began playing music together. The two even worked together on Russo’s fourth album, “Burden of Proof.”
“Eventually over a couple of years we finally figured out where we fit together,” Russo said.
While Shearer has since returned to Arizona, the two continued to develop songs for their album using their cellphones.
Using a free recording app on his phone, Russo said he would send phone demos of songs he wrote to Shearer, who would then upload them and add drums, bass guitar, horns, harmonies and more.
“We kept doing that exercise not thinking that anyone was going to hear them, or to just have them as working demos for when he was able to come back out here, and we could do it in the same room together,” he said. “But within six months we had 25 songs, and we really thought that there was something there.”
Russo said songs found on the album explore happiness, hardships, grief, tragedy and what it means to be an American in 2018.
“I’ve always wanted to make thinking songs that sounded like drinking songs,” he said. “I never wanted to write throw-away lyrics.”
Russo said he began sending their phone demos to contacts he had made over the years, including Madeira.
“I didn’t ever expect to hear anything back from Phil,” Russo said. “It took two months before he emailed me back, so I had pretty much forgotten about it. Chris and I were making plans to do something else with this. We were in talks with other people and then Phil was like let’s do it. Then it kept escalating.”
Russo and Shearer will be recording their new album, “Pennsyltucky,” at the Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio in Nashville. The studio is co-owned by country singer-songwriter John Prine and producer David Ferguson and has hosted several notable artists, including Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Del McCoury, to name a few.
In addition, Sean Sullivan, who won a Grammy for his work on Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” will engineer the album.
Russo, who has shared the stage with more than 30 national acts throughout his career, equates this experience to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I know it might be the last big shot, and I’m okay with that, but I just want one shot to know definitively if my songs are just as good and can be at that level,” he said.
“We both obviously had aspirations to do something like this,” he said, “but when you are suddenly looking it in the eye … it’s a weird feeling.”
In the six weeks since Madeira’s initial email, Russo and Shearer have been working to raise funds for their trip to Nashville. The musicians have also started a crowdfunding campaign (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/boys-called-susan-debut-album#/ ) to pay for the recording, mastering and promotion of the album. As of Thursday afternoon, it has raised 72 percent of its $15,000 goal.
“I’m not afraid to be in that studio with those people,” Russo said. “I’m scared that no one cares enough to help. I’m scared after all of these years of making art and music that no one cared enough to support me when I needed it most. That’s the insecurity every artist, every songwriter, has.”
Regardless, Shearer said he is excited for the opportunity to work alongside music legends.
“We’re swinging for the fences and we’ll see how far the ball ends up going,” he said.