Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#19 - JRL 7006
New York Times
January 6, 2003
From Russia, Without Twang But With Country in Their Hearts;
Despite Hard Breaks, Bering Strait Hopes to Make It in Nashville

NASHVILLE - "Porushka-Paranya," a traditional Russian folk song, would seem an odd choice to close out the Grand Ole Opry's late show at Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. But Nashville veterans like Charley Pride and Jim Ed Brown are enthusiastically tapping their toes to the dizzying banjo and fiddle riffs that transform the song into a bluegrass stomp.

Around Nashville, the seven musicians in the band Bering Strait are known as "the Russian kids." After four years of struggle and broken record deals, the kids, now in their early 20's, are on the cusp of doing something none of their countrymen have ever done: make it on Music Row.

Bering Strait's cross-cultural blend of pop rock (reminiscent of the Pretenders and 10,000 Maniacs) and classic country is beginning to catch on, and not only in Nashville. At a dressy charity benefit held at the gilded residence of the Russian ambassador in Washington in late November, four members of the band performed before a cheering audience full of Embassy Row grandees more accustomed to the dulcet strains of Tchaikovsky.

The group's first album, "Bering Strait," will be released on Jan. 14 by Universal South, a relatively new and hot country label, a division of Universal Records.

Next month comes the release of a documentary film, "The Ballad of Bering Strait," which lovingly chronicles the band's rocky road from a classical music conservatory in Russia to the country big-time. The band is planning live appearances in New York, including one at B. B. King's Blues Club and Grill on Feb. 12, and a few other cities when the film has its theatrical release in Manhattan on Feb. 7. A full-fledged tour is also in the works.

"What sets these kids apart is what fine musicians they are," said Pete Fisher, the Opry's general manager, who has booked them to play at the Ryman and the bigger, Disneyfied Opryland several times.

But with country record labels going bust and stiffer competition for air time on the radio, "it's probably tougher than ever to break through," said Lon Helton, the Nashville bureau chief of Radio & Records, a publication that closely tracks the music charts. Others in the country music world say it is vital for the band to be more than a novelty act known for its Russian roots. On Bering Strait's CD all songs but one are sung in English (without twang) and show virtually no trace of the group's foreign origins.

In some ways, the band's story - compellingly captured by Nina Gilden Seavey, who runs the documentary film center at George Washington University in Washington and won an Emmy for a previous documentary film about polio - is more distinctive than its music.

Bering Strait's obsession with country music began as the fall of Communism ushered in a period when American culture, from cowboy hats to music, flooded into Russia. In Obninsk, 65 miles southwest of Moscow and noteworthy mainly as the home of the world's first commercial nuclear power plant and a city once closed to visitors, almost all the group's members shared a strict music teacher who put the band together. An admirer of Earl Monroe and Lester Flatt, he taught Ilya Toshinsky the banjo and Alexander Ostrovsky the Dobro, requiring them to practice 10 hours a day. There is a hilarious scene in the movie where Mr. Toshinsky plays a feisty "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the banjo as part of his conservatory examination for a pair of somewhat perplexed professors. "The banjo is not really played that much in Russia," Mr. Toshinsky explained in a recent interview.

When Bering Strait was performing at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow in the late 1990's, Ray Johnson, an American art dealer, wandered in, hoping to have dinner without being subjected to live music. But when Mr. Johnson heard Bering Strait's expertly played bluegrass, he was enchanted. He paid for the teenagers to travel to Nashville, where they connected with a longtime producer, Tim DuBois, now at Universal South, and Mike Kinnamon, their manager.

In some ways, the person with the most riding on all this is Mr. Kinnamon, who for years had all seven members of the band living in makeshift bunk beds at his modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom home outside Nashville. Helping support the band for nearly four years has brought Mr. Kinnamon to the brink of bankruptcy, he said during a recent interview at his home, where two members of the band still reside. "I've got enough money to make it to the end of the month, but that's all," said Mr. Kinnamon, who nonetheless helped members of the band scrape together the funds to make it back home to Russia this Christmas.

Mr. Kinnamon, who has managed other rock and country acts, is accustomed to risk. He ran away from home to join the circus when he was a boy and learned to be a tightrope walker, a skill he still performs. He is a total believer in the band, talks about the members like a proud father and watches their newly produced videos in reverential silence. "I kept waiting for them to grow up," he said, "but it's me who did."

He has stuck by Bering Strait through four previously canceled record deals. Because of visa restrictions, the band members cannot work other jobs. More than once, he said, he and the band drove past the annual Country Music Association Awards ceremony certain that "this should be our year," only to confront fresh setbacks. The four-year wait for the CD's debut took a toll on the group's homesick fiddler, Sergei Passov, who left the band a few months ago and returned to Russia.

"The worst part was the fear and the waiting and not knowing what would happen," said Natasha Borzilova, the band's lead vocalist, who like a lot of young American women is fond of changing her hair color and has gone from the brown braids she wore as a teenager to a blond punk cut to the red curls she tossed onstage at the Opry last month.

At one point, just after three band members got their own place in Nashville, their apartment building burned to the ground. It is easy to see why the father of Lydia Salnikova, the group's keyboard player and backup vocalist, sternly cautions her in the film, "Musician today, unemployed tomorrow."

Ms. Seavey, who shot parts of her film in Russia and interviewed the band's family, teachers and friends, said that the band members still derived a lot of their cultural nourishment from home. Mr. Toshinsky said he long ago accepted that it would be impossible to support himself in Russia playing country music.

Now he and the other band members consider Nashville home. Ms. Borzilova and Ms. Salnikova are fixtures in a local yoga class.

"They are really good musicians," Jim Ed Brown said, watching the Russian performers take their bows at the Opry. "They could do it. All they need is a hit song."

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