Kelly Russell was born at 1 Stoneyhouse Street in St John’s to Ted and Dora Russell. The influence of his father, the legendary story teller and king of recitations is obvious but it was his mother who taught him piano at a young age that started off his lifetime musical journey.
Popular music came calling and so did his insatiable appetite for the fiddle. As his obsession grew it turned Kelly into a rare form of musician. The fiddle being so ingrained in him that playing it is like breathing or moving a limb. It’s completely automatic. Kelly is able to communicate to his audience feelings and passion that most musicians struggle to convey. He has passed that ability on to generations of Newfoundland & Labrador musicians. There isn’t a fiddler in the province that hasn’t been influenced or taught by Kelly either personally or playing with him in a session. In fact most weekends you will find Kelly hunting down these sessions to play and share his passion. Revelling in learning new material. Coaxing the young and the shy to join in. There is always a chair for you at one of his sessions.
His resume of bands is immense. From Wonderful Grand Band to Figgy Duff, The Irish Descendants, Shanneyganock, The Punters and beyond. His label Pigeon Inlet has produced dozens of albums that not only feature Kelly but the best of Newfoundland & Labrador musicians past and present. A glance at these albums range from purist to experimental. Kelly has never been afraid to take his music in new directions and share the spotlight. These albums, recitations and song books stand as an ongoing document of Newfoundland & Labrador music and its culture.
A personal memory that sums up Kelly for me happened in 1996 when The Planks played the Vancouver Folk Festival. One of the stages we played that weekend had a grand finale where the band on stage invited all the fiddlers up for one final number. The bandleader called upon his two fiddlers to start it off. They played their tunes which fell flat. A dozen fiddlers looked at each other wondering what to do. Then the band leader pointed to Kelly. He placed the fiddle under his chin and played St. Anne’s Reel. In an instant a dozen fiddlers from all over the world joined in and gave the crowd a rousing finale. Only Kelly’s encyclopedic knowledge of fiddle music and his institutional understanding of the culture of fiddlers based on decades of sessions could have done that. Like playing a video game he flicked a switch and instantly activated a dozen fiddlers from across the globe. It was thrilling to watch. I’ll never forget it.
Behind his Order Of Canada, awards, decades of shows, countless albums, sessions, teachings and charming demeanour – he is just Kelly. A lifetime of joy in doing what he loves that has given us an irreplaceable cultural gift. One that will live on. One we couldn’t possibly reciprocate. One he has personally taken to the world.
Congratulations Kelly Russell on your Folk Arts Society Lifetime Achievement Award!
Written by Chris Batstone