Although their name sounds like a charming Saturday morning cartoon show, or maybe an over-the-top action movie like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches is a band from New York made up of Nick Russo (banjo, guitars, vocals) and Betina Hershey (lead vocals, guitar).
What makes the duo unique is its sound, which encompasses folk, Americana, world music, New Orleans jazz, Gullah Geechee rhythms and scat singing, and what I call good old hoedown music. The duo’s forthcoming album, called Get Us Out Of Fearland, drops June 15.
Blogcritics caught up with Nickaru and Scooches prior to the album’s release to find out more about the dynamic duo and the influences behind their distinctive sound.
How would you describe yourself?
Nick Russo: I have a serious, fast-paced, hardworking, studious side where I’m always working, always on the go and constantly running from one gig to the next. My humorous side comes out when I have downtime. This is when I tell jokes and stories. I also enjoy hearing jokes and anecdotes. I’m a true people person. I love connecting with everyone I meet, I strongly believe in community and I enjoy knowing folks from around the world. I’m blessed with an incredible, loving, caring, positive, creative, supportive family! They are modern, super liberal, progressive, open-minded, always down to sing, dance and swap jokes and stories! I’m also blessed with literally thousands of musician friends. Wait – let me check, I have 9,307 entries in my contacts! [laughs]
However, it’s the quality that’s more important than quantity. Although I enjoy performing every night as a sideman for many bands and being in the heart of the New York City music scene, I really look forward to down time with my family and closest friends.
What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?
Nick: I’m the regular guitar/banjo player in a bunch of bands based in New York City and here is a story about one band I’m a regular member of: During an outdoor photo session next to old service-railroad tracks in Brooklyn, NY I was “detained” by police with the other seven musicians and the band photographer. All of us had to go to court for “trespassing!” Imagine being arrested just for taking the CD cover photo for Gordon Au’s band The Grand St. Stompers! The funny thing is while we were being detained, our good friend and trombonist, Matt Musselman, was attempting to purchase ice cream from an ice cream truck nearby. I convinced him it wasn’t a good idea to leave our “phantom zone” in the presence of the police to get an ice cream and possibly be in more trouble than we were in already.
The charges were eventually dropped and a year later we received a letter from New York City that implied we would potentially be able to claim funds for the whole fiasco. Imagine that! Unfortunately, I got so busy with music gigs I forgot to mail it in. Agh!
What’s your favorite song to belt out in the car or the shower?
Nick: Any song by James Brown, old AC/DC with Bon Scott (what a unique voice and such driving music!). In the car (with the windows down) I like to belt out Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven symphonies, Mamaday Keita and Sewa Kan, Sly & the Family Stone, Johnny Winter, Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top, Jeff Beck, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Eagles, Van Halen, just to name a few.
What kind of guitar do you play?
Nick: I have over 25 fretted stringed instruments, approximately 18 guitars.
Currently, I mainly play my 1930 Gibson L-1, Roger Borys 17″ archtop, National M-1 Tricone resonator. Recently Betina and I tour with two collapsible-neck guitars: Voyage-Air and Journey “Overhead” dreadnought acoustic guitars. I also own a Taylor 810-CE-LTD series acoustic guitar, a 1920s Gibson tenor guitar, a 1930s Epiphone tenor guitar, a Borys 16″ arch top, a Fender Strat, an Ibanez solid body, a 7-string EVO solid body, two 7-string Brazilian classical guitars, four 6-string classical nylon string guitars and other various acoustic guitars, 5-string banjos (Ome), a couple of Fender concert tone tenor banjos, a Fender concert tone plectrum banjo, a 6-string banjo, mandolins, ukuleles, harmonium, and many other instruments!
How, if at all, do your musical influences shape and impact your music?
Nick: Yes, I’m riding on the shoulders of giants!
Music and musicians that I hear that resonate with me often lead to frequent listening and studying. Listening, focusing, and studying specific music deepens my understanding and it begins the process of hearing that music on a deeper level. Once I’m able to really sing something and play it in all keys, the music impacts my creative, improvisational output. When I get deep into a specific rhythm, meter and/or groove, it surfaces in my own improvisation, compositions, approaches and arrangements.
Also, outside of music, other things in life influence, shape and impact my own music. Life itself, my family, my children, my relationships with my close family and friends, my environment, energy/vibes, the temperature, nature, food, and other elements have a profound effect on my music playing.
For example, when the musicians I’m playing with have a great vibe and people are sincere, positive, loving and caring, I feel more comfortable and often play at a much higher level. I remember that energy and utilize it in other situations, both positive and negative. In other words, I use my “storage” of positive energy in subsequent positive, negative and neutral situations. As we know, a lot of this is subjective, so we can use our breath, our brains and hearts to turn most situations and events into positive learning experiences. I often use a mantra that my bass player friend/former roommate, Paul Beaudry, taught me: “Be like water!”
How would you describe your style of music?
Nick: An eclectic mix of global folk, Americana, and traditions influenced and infused with world rhythms and world sonorities. At live shows we also sprinkle in some music of the 1920s, New Orleans second line, Gullah Geechee rhythms plus North Indian classical instruments such as the harmonium and other world instruments and sounds. Everything but the kitchen sink!
Where do you find inspiration for your songs?
Betina Hershey: I go through my days singing my thoughts. When something sticks with me, I write it down or record it and it becomes a song I keep. These songs are inspired by my life, stories I’ve read, the news, and people I meet.
What is your songwriting process? Do the lyrics come first, or the music?
Betina: The melody. Although I do write poetry, when composing a song, there is always a melody present. However, there are not always words present when I write a melody. Sometimes the melody will change when it comes out fully.
Nick: When I hear Betina’s songs in their incarnation, I often hear harmony, re-harmonization, rhythms, different instruments, colors, sounds, form, arrangements and other elements. Betina and I may jam together at home or the songs evolve on a gig.
I really like your album, Get Us Out Of Fearland. It fuses together a variety of cultural sounds, as well as eras. How did that come about?
Nick: Thank you! We appreciate that! I have always had an eclectic taste for music, art, food, cultures, places, etc. So for me it feels and sounds natural to hear and play an eclectic mix of different instruments, sonorities, rhythms, styles, grooves and time feels from around the world fused together. Besides, Betina is easy to work with and allows me a lot of freedom to improvise around and orchestrate her music. Often she plays a new melody she has composed with basic chords and I immediately hear other instruments, harmonies and colors. Sometimes I write the chords, suggest changes in the melody, alter the form and organically shape the song with Betina, both off the bandstand and on!
The Gullah Geechee influence on the album is unique and indicates a musical erudition that’s unusual. What was the creative motivation behind its inclusion?
Nick: I’ve been playing in David Pleasant’s band for over 20 years and blessed to learn about the Gullah Geechee culture, music, and rhythms directly from him. David has a positive impact on our band. While jamming together in Boston, David’s playing inspired Betina to write the guitar riff for the title track, Get Us Out of Fearland.
One of my favorites on the album is “A Hundred Miles.” What made you choose to cover it?
Nick: We play so many types of gigs, concerts, recordings, video shoots, events and we know a lot of music. It was Betina’s idea to select “A Hundred Miles.”
Betina: We love train songs. I have fond memories of singing this song with friends who have since moved far away.
Nick: In fact, Alice Bertilsson, a foreign exchange student from Sweden, was living with us for a year, and she sang with us on an older version of “Hundred Miles” in one of our promo videos! We used to change the lyrics to “5,000 miles” which is the approximate distance from NYC to Sweden!
Will you be touring soon?
Nick: Currently, we’re focusing on the June 14 New York City album release concert at DROM NYC.
However, yes, we’re touring in August! We are looking forward to return visits to North Carolina, Tennessee, and possibly other surrounding areas. We will be on Blue Plate Special on WDVX in Knoxville, TN, on Tuesday, August 21, at Behind The Barn at Barley’s Taproom in Maryville, TN, on Thursday August 23, on WETS FM radio in Johnson City, TN, on Friday August 24, at Isis Music Hall in Asheville, NC, on Sunday August 26, plus on WHUP FM radio in Hillsborough, NC. Please feel free to stay in touch on social media.