Bearing straight to Nashville
February 4, 2004
When the members of Russian country/bluegrass band Bering Strait made their initial visit to the United States, in the mid-’90s, their first destination was Oak Ridge, Tenn. It seems a natural for the band: Oak Ridge, nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, 125 miles from Nashville and 50 miles from the border with the bluegrass state of Kentucky, is the heart of the bluegrass belt.
Oddly, though, Oak Ridge’s musical character had little to do with Bering Strait’s visit there. Oak Ridge, site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has been a sister city to Bering Strait’s hometown of Obninsk, where the world’s first nuclear power plant was built. Science was the first link between Oak Ridge and Obninsk.
Over the last decade, though, the tie between the two regions has been strengthened. And this time it’s cultural. In 1998, the six-piece band Bering Strait, named for the narrow body of water that separates Russia from Alaska, moved its base of operations from Obninsk to Nashville, the better to pursue their musical ambitions.
Bering Strait makes its Aspen debut with a concert at the Wheeler Opera House on Monday, Feb. 9.
Unlike their adopted home of Music City, U.S.A., Bering Strait’s native city is hardly a music capital. Obninsk, some 50 miles southeast of Moscow, was built in the 1950s as a nuclear science center.
But the city, with a population of 100,000, was big and cultured enough to have two music schools. And in one of those ” Music School No. 1, by name ” was Alexi Gzozdev, a guitar teacher with a passion for bluegrass. Gzozdev’s love of the style was enough that he handpicked the school’s finest musicians to form a bluegrass band. Eventually the group, thanks to both their talent and the unusual sounds they were making, became heroes to their fellow students.
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“I knew the people in the band because they were stars in our music school,” said Lydia Salnikova, a keyboardist and singer who joined Bering Strait in 1995, seven years after the group was formed. “I watched from afar and thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be in that band?
“It was something so unusual. Bluegrass was something you didn’t hear in Russia. Really cute kids playing this really fast, really strange music was something.”
Bering Strait was founded as a bluegrass outfit around banjoist Ilya Toshinsky, singer-guitarist Natasha Borzilova and dobroist Sasha Ostrovsky. Their early heroes were Bela Fleck, Earl Scruggs and Jerry Douglas. But after a few years and several trips to the States, the group grew increasingly interested in country and American pop. To fill out the sound, they added the rhythm section of drummer Alexander Arzamastsev, bassist Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, who had been playing together in a heavy-metal band, and Salnikova.
“As a keyboard player, there’s not a lot for me to do in a bluegrass band,” said Salnikova. “So I came in at a time when the band was turning from bluegrass into country. We were getting more involved with steel guitar. They needed a second singer and they needed keyboards.”
There was the tricky task of the band’s getting exposed to the music they wanted to play. The fall of communism brought an interest in American culture, including cowboy hats and popular music. Still, actually finding bluegrass and country albums was tough. But when Bering Strait began making trips to the United States, they turned the visits into massive music-buying sprees. The band also became close with Kukuruza, an established Russian bluegrass band that shared records, thoughts and contacts with Bering Strait.
In 1998 the band decided to give its take on country music where country music was born. They relocated to Nashville and lived for two years in the home of Mike Kinnamon, who would become their manager. In 1999 Bering Strait signed a record deal with Arista and began recording their first album. It looked as if the American dream was coming quickly true for the Russian immigrants.
Arista, however, was going through a major corporate shakeup. Bering Strait obtained a release from their contract, beginning a fall into the rabbit hole that is the world of major record labels. The band eventually went through four labels and came close to breaking up.
In early 2002, Bering Strait signed with Universal South and the deal stuck. The band not only released its eponymous debut in early 2003, but also earned a Grammy nomination for best country instrumental performance. Last February, on the eve of the Grammy Awards ceremony, Bering Strait was featured on “60 Minutes,” a segment that has been rebroadcast since. The band was the subject of a highly regarded verite documentary, “The Ballad of Bering Strait,” which aired on the country music station, CMT.
Now that the band is on solid ground, Bering Strait is aiming for further artistic achievement. Salnikova says the band’s musicianship and ambition have stretched beyond the pop-country of the first album. In the liner notes to “Bering Strait,” the members’ listed influences range from Bela Fleck to Garth Brooks to the Beatles to Chick Corea.
“We don’t want it to be about novelty any more,” said Salnikova, whose early influences ” country artists like Reba McIntyre, Alan Jackson and Ricky Skaggs ” have been supplemented by Peter Gabriel, Sting and Sheryl Crow. “We want to get onstage and play great music, make great sounds. And when you hear us now, it’s not just country and bluegrass. We’re all classically trained; some of us studied jazz. It’s a big feast of musicianship.”
Salnikova is anxious for Bering Strait to release its second CD. She is pleased with the first one, but notes that it was conceptualized and partly recorded several years before it was released.
“That takes away from the album being a solid piece,” she said. “In some ways it’s a bit dated. It shows what we have been through, not where we are now.”
The band’s sophomore album has been partly recorded, and Salnikova is hoping for a release in late spring. While the majority of the first album was written by outside songwriters, the second will feature mostly songs by members of Bering Strait. Salnikova looks forward to the progression.
“In the beginning we were just taking someone else’s music and trying to make it ours,” she said. “Now we’re trying to come up with something of our own. Being a musician is one thing. But in my mind, a true artist has to make their own music. It’s more my music if I wrote it.
“We’ll see where the road takes us from here.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org