Local artists keep us humming while homebound
“Music is, in normal times, a vehicle that helps people get over their daily troubles. It lifts you above your problems, helps maintain and restore faith, helps heal. So In times of struggle, it becomes even more important.” During the current struggles amid the COVID 19 Pandemic, these words by Union Parish native Monty Russell could not ring more true.
Russell, one of the most beloved local musicians of all time knows what music can do for the soul in all life situations, both good and bad.
Russell has been playing music since he was eight years old. His grandfather, Leon Russell, taught him how to play the guitar and he has been playing and singing ever since. Over the years, Russell has played in churches, gospel groups, bluegrass groups, Joe Woods Wildwood Express, and various other groups and in as many venues as possible.
He has written many songs, played every kind of venue possible, made several albums, promotes other musical talents, produces records, and plays about 200 nights a year around the south. To say Monty Russell is a musical gift would be an understatement
Russell knows music and he knows the incredible affect music can have on the psyche and morale of the listener. This emotional effect of music can be found in Russell and other local artists like local artist Keith Powell. “I think music is what keeps people afloat through tough times like these,” says Powell, known as Big Po to his fans and followers, “Songs make us feel…whether it be a fun, happy motivational or sad…they all create energy that can be used to brighten our days and get us through those rough patches,” says Powell.
That has never been more important to Union Parish, Louisiana, and the entire world than right now. Russell, Keith Powell, and undoubtedly many other artists in Louisiana and around the country have a very difficult job during this unprecedented time in our history. These artists must not only continue to provide emotional and psychological outlets for their followers, but they must also figure out how to continue to produce and provide income to support themselves and their families.
Russell realized early on in this social distancing atmosphere that thinking outside of the box would be necessary to not only produce music but to get the music out to the listener. NELA Couch Series, created by Josh Madden and Ira Barger, produces nightly shows. The creators of this Couch Series were originally planning to meet up at one location to provide entertainment for their listeners, but after tighter social distancing restrictions were put in place, the artists all decided to link from their own homes to the NELA page. Artists go live from their homes and connect to the NELA Couch Network. Russell played for this venue on its inaugural night and contributed a song to its Easter special.
“Locked Up Live at The Eli @ Restaurant Cotton” is another virtual show that Russell contributes to. “I ran into Jay Howell at Brookshires just as the shutdown was happening and he asked how this was going to affect me,” says Russell. When Russell told Howell that shows in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Austin, and various other locations would be cancelled, not to mention more than 20 dates in March all across the South, Howell decided to try and do something to help his friend and other musicians who would be suffering. “I’ve known Jay for many years,” said Russell, “and he has always been a strong supporter of live music.”
Together, Howell and Russell put together a plan that would allow musicians to broadcast from the Eli Bar on Facebook Live. Howell also set up a fundraising page that raised several thousand dollars in the first week that helps to pay special guests who perform for the broadcasts. Every Friday and Saturday night a special guest is brought into the Eli Bar above Cotton for several hours. They play music and chat about the artist’s career, how they are affected by the closures, and their hopes for the future. They have hosted several Union Parish artists including Jordan Shepphard, Keith Patterson, and Robert Finley. These guys, along with other local artists like Big Po, have lost tens of thousands of dollars in gigs and momentum during the mandated shut downs. Russell calls these Facebook Live broadcasts part concert, part informal shows, “maybe home invasions,” he chuckles, “kind of like when families used to sit around the radio and listen to live shows before TV appeared.” These kinds of “shows” can bring families together, bring joy for a while, and bring hope to our communities.
These musicians who have helped many of us remember incredibly wonderful, sad, happy, unforgettable moments in our lives with music, are suffering right along with us. “Right now artists like myself who depend on music to pay the bills, we are struggling like the rest of the world who has lost their jobs…and with so many uncertainties surrounding when we might be able to tour again, many artists are playing on social media and asking for ‘virtual tips,’” said Big Po.
Russell wants to remind fans and listeners that, “we have such a vibrant music scene in North Louisiana. We have these amazing talents who are promoting their own recordings, printing their own merchandise, and touring all over America and beyond.” Fans and followers should, for now, listen online, share these online shows and videos, hit those “like” buttons, join friends online to watch, and donate if at all possible to allow these musicians to continue to create and bring them new material.
Music has the power to elicit powerful memories, feelings, and to comfort in times of need. Artists and musicians like Monty Russell and Big Po help us to find our inner warrior and battle on. Union Parish and all of North Louisiana has an amazing pool of artists and musicians and Russell reminds us, “when this is over, go out and support the musicians who kept plowing while this shutdown was happening and remember how rich the pool of independent artists are in our neck of the woods.”
Music soothes the soul and tames the wild beast. When you feel tired, defeated, and like giving up, battle on, push through and turn on music from Monty Russell, Big Po, and other amazing artists from Union Parish and North Louisiana… they are there with us bringing hope and pushing through.