Mountain Melodies: Far and Wide

Russell

[s2If is_user_logged_in()]

PDF Click here to view this article as a PDF[/s2If]

Russell Gulley’s musical roots run through legendary Muscle Shoals and around the world, but some of his greatest accomplishments are playing out close to home.

story by ANITA STIEFEL | photo by STEVEN STIEFEL

Russell Gulley’s musical portfolio is diverse to say the least. Pick a hat – songwriter, educator, folklorist, music historian, artist-in-residence, arts council director – he wears them all in impressive fashion.

“First and foremost, I’m a musician,” he says. “I’ve been performing and recording now for more than 40 years.”

The DeKalb County native began making music at age 15. He performed with local gospel groups before following his dream to Muscle Shoals in the 1970s, where he worked as a songwriter and studio musician.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

To read the rest of this article, pick up a copy of the Fall 2014 issue OR Subscribe Now for instant access to our online edition, which offers more photos (including those not published in the print edition).

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]In 1974, Gulley, his brother and several friends formed the Southern rock band Jackson Highway, named for the street address of the world-famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Jackson Highway signed with Capital Records and enjoyed success during the 1980s, touring the world as the opening act for such artists as Ted Nugent, Blackfoot, UFO and Triumph.

“I played bass, sang harmonies and was the primary songwriter,” Gulley explains. “Probably our biggest hit was the song, ‘You’re Looking Good.’ We were pretty popular overseas – we did better in Germany and France than anywhere.”

Gulley has written songs that have been recorded by The Juveniles, The Beat Daddys and Carl Weathersby, nephew of the famous bluesman Albert King, among others.

In 2004, Gulley returned to the studio to create his first solo CD, titled “Back to the Swamp” and recorded at Straight Up Sound in Nashville. The title track and another song, “No Holds Barred,” made the top 10 in blues charts worldwide.

He has released several singles since then, including “Get Down Off That Cross” and “Dusty King James.” Most recently, Gulley released an EP titled “Howard,” a tribute to Alabama-born folk artist Howard Finster (featured in the Summer 2014 issue), whose artwork and Summerville, Ga., home called Paradise Garden are enjoying renewed acclaim more than a decade after Finster’s death. The music is available for download at iTunes, Amazon.com and on his website,  russellgulleymusic.com.

Gulley will release his yet untitled second solo CD sometime this fall. It will continue his journey into the “acoustic swamp” of blues, rock and Americana.

The project was made with his producer-brother Dennis Gulley on bass guitar and features a number of songwriter friends Russell calls “the family,” including Chris Anderson of the Outlaws on resonator (dobro), Johnny Neel of the Allman Brothers Band on harmonica and keyboard and guitarist Doug “Blind Willie” Jones. On drums are Michael Grando of the Joe Diffie band, along with Daryl Burgess, who has penned songs for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Reba McEntire, and Kenny Kramer, whose songs have been recorded by Delbert McClinton and T. Graham Brown.

Aside from writing music and collaborating with other established musicians, Gulley also has dedicated himself to helping young musicians develop their skills and to helping preserve Southern music’s historical roots. He is executive director of Big Wills Arts Council, which develops and implements artistic programming and educational events in Fort Payne, Ala. and surrounding areas.

One popular initiative is the Kamama Music Series, a semi-monthly series of “house concerts” Gulley presents in partnership with Ray and Sandra Padgett, owners of Kamama – an art gallery and restaurant in Mentone, Ala. Events take place on the first and third Thursdays of each month. The program features some of the Southeast’s best “roots music,” as Gulley calls it bluesy rock, rockabilly, folk and some gospel artists.

“Big Wills Arts Council has three main legs – the Arts in Education Program, the Visiting Artist Program and Discover DeKalb Music,” Gulley explains.

The Arts in Education Program integrates music into elementary school classroom lessons. For example, last year, third graders at Williams Avenue Elementary School were taught songwriting to help develop reading-comprehension skills. “Reading and songwriting are a natural fit because they use a lot of the same skills,” says Gulley, who has been trained by the DANA Foundation, which focuses on understanding and fostering child cognitive development.

“With a song, you have a main idea or a theme, same as a story. Music can be used to teach whatever they are teaching in the classroom. We can customize it to fit the lessons.”

BWAC’s Visiting Artist Program works closely with the Alabama Council on the Arts to provide local performances and shows in music, dance, theater and visual arts, while Discover DeKalb Music gives middle and high school students the opportunity to develop their talents. “We teach the students basic performance skills and techniques,” Gulley says. “There are opportunities throughout the year to play on stage, such as at the Boom Days festival and the DeKalb County Fiddler’s Convention. Performances are webcast, which gives wide exposure, and last fall Discover DeKalb Music students participated in the recording of a Christmas CD featuring noted musicians such as Fort Payne’s own Country Music Hall of Fame supergroup, Alabama.”

Gulley is on the board of directors of the Alabama Folk Life Association and compiles oral histories for the Alabama State Archives. For 10 years he has traveled around the state of Alabama as a visiting artist, teaching his course “Intro: Folk Music, Blues and Tradition,” to K-12 students in order to educate them about their musical heritage and culture.

Gulley received a Fellowship from the Alabama Council on the Arts to continue his community arts programs into 2015.

After the release of his second CD this fall, Gulley will be on tour regionally and along the East Coast, performing as a solo act as well as with friends as the Russell Gulley Trio, the RG Rhythm Section and the full Russell Gulley Band, depending on which of “the family” is joining him on stage. Don’t look for this multi-hat-wearing musician, educator and community servant to slow down anytime soon.

For the latest on Russell Gulley, his tour dates and other projects, visit russellgulleymusic.com.[/s2If]