Ever since the end of the second world war, relations between the US and Russia have been fraught with tension and suspicion. Although mutual mistrust peaked during the Cold War, it continues to pique and polarize the two nations even today.
Yet, even in the midst of this milieu, music has found a way to thaw the chill, courtesy of goodwill tours featuring an array of high profile musicians that’s included Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among the many. The connections made with the average individual has not only nurtured mutual understanding, but also encouraged ordinary citizens to emulate American music and, in turn, integrate it into their own musical ventures.
One such outfit that did just that is the Red Brick Boys, a group that evolved out of Moscow’s Scottish dancing community. Formed in 2009 by Alexander Dmitrienko (guitar, vocals), Keyreel Raskolenko (fiddle), Iskander Telyashev (harp) and Alexey Chudinov (banjo), it currently boasts the distinction of being the only bluegrass/roots music band in Moscow that adheres to a traditional template with old-time acoustic instrumentation.
Over the course of its collective career, Red Brick Boys have seen some of its members depart for other environs. Raskolenko moved to Austin, Texas, but still performs with the band when he returns home. Chudinov left Russia, relocated to the Czech Republic, and became integrated into that country’s bluegrass scene. Nevertheless, Dmitrienko and Telyashev remain firmly committed to moving the band forward and they continue to helm the group today.
Dmitrienko’s own affinity for bluegrass is still a constant. It is, he says, a sound that stirred him from early on. “The first influence I can remember was the record of Joan Baez playing traditional tunes with Greenbriar Boys,” he recalls. “Later, it was tapes of Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers, followed by CDs of Doc Watson, Peter Rowan, Alison Krauss, and Jerry Douglas. He also cites David Grisman, Mike Compton, and Tim O’Brien as artists that furthered his fascination.
Although the Red Brick Boys are still based in Moscow, Dmitrienko admits that their hometown appeal is decidedly limited. “I can’t say that there are wide audiences that have any interest in bluegrass music,” Dmitrienkoso responds ruefully when asked about their local following. “Our gigs are mostly attended by either real fans of the genre, who are sure excited and enthusiastic, or curious newbies, who sometimes become fans as well. Many people consider our music too traditional or too hard to comprehend, but that’s to be expected.”
Nevertheless, there are certain ties to Russian folk music that suggest the respective roots can be intertwined.
“The similarities that exist include a number of plucked string instruments that exist in Russian folk tradition, together with a certain resemblance of melodies and harmony,” Dmitrienko notes. “The ‘Russian folk fiddle,’ nearly dead now, also has a certain similarity to the old-time manner of fiddling.”
Likewise, the band’s handle is no accident either. “The name came quintessentially from the fact that Moscow’s classic architecture is nearly all red-brick based,” Dmitrienko explains, adding that it also refers to his love of “the architectural style of New England’s towns.”
While the group hasn’t had an opportunity to tour New England, or any other part of the States for that matter, Dmitrienko says their dream is to eventually make their way to Nashville and Raleigh, North Carolina for the World of Bluegrass convention. In the meantime, they’ve had the opportunity to perform with several notable stateside artists who have come to Russia to tour.
“Della Mae visited Russia in 2019, so we invited them to our session and had a great time playing together,” Dmitrienko recalls. “We also had a jam session with Tommy Emanuel about five or six years ago, as I was translating his live broadcast for Russian fans. We made friends and played together in Russia with Donna Ulisse and her husband Rick Stanley, Ralph’s nephew. We also did some online activities with Maya De Vitry and Oliver Craven, who were playing with the Stray Birds band at the time, and we became distant mates with Trent Wagler and the Steel Wheels as well.”
Not that they’ve been confined to playing only at home. “We toured several times during the summer months over these last ten years, usually to festivals that feature different kinds of music,” he further explains. “We’re generally billed as something that’s totally different from the variety of music that they usually present.”
Not surprisingly then, their repertoire leans towards covers of traditional material, although Dmitrienko notes that one song that’s proved to be especially popular with their fans is a cover of a Joe Pernice song called Silo.
“I wouldn’t say that bluegrass music is necessarily all that popular worldwide,” Dmitrienko suggests. “But for me, that is probably what makes it so great…the fact that it’s not a genre for everyone, but rather for people who understand and have some great taste for music, harmony, and improvisation.”