Even 20 years ago, the notion of a band from another country specializing in bluegrass was somewhat startling. Back then, one group in particular pioneered the idea that bluegrass could be a universal language, and the fact that that group hailed from Russia made that idea all the more innovative. Never mind that in 1977, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band undertook the first of two tours of the Soviet Union, and had been greeted enthusiastically by the audiences they encountered. The idea of this signature American sound borne from a Russian band appeared more a novelty than a niche.
The group in question was Bering Strait, and they eventually accumulated a number of accolades courtesy of a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental and a featured piece on 60 Minutes. The band performed under several names before finally settling on its final moniker, and when they broke up in 2006, the core members consisted of Alexander Arzamastsev (drums), Natasha Borzilova (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky (bass), Alexander “Sasha” Ostrovsky (dobro, steel guitar, lap steel), and Lydia Salnikova (lead vocals, keyboards).
Salnikova currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee where she’s happily married and the proud mother of a baby boy. Although she’s no longer part of a band, she maintains a productive career as a session singer and keyboard player. We recently asked her to share her perspective of the draw of bluegrass overseas and her answers proved to be immensely illuminating.
Bluegrass Beyond Borders: How did you first come to experience bluegrass music and what really excited you about it?
Lydia Salnikova: I joined my former band Bering Strait in 1995-1996. Back then, it was called Cheerful Diligence and then the name got changed to Siberian Heatwave. It was not that long after the Berlin Wall came down, so everything American was very exciting and interesting by default. The music teacher who put the band together had gotten ahold of some Earl Scruggs records, and he felt that this fast, finger-picking style of music would be not only fun, but also technically challenging for his students to learn. Which it was, on both counts. Besides, when you get to explore instruments like banjo and dobro, it is definitely a rich and exotic cultural experience, as they are not at all common in Russia.
BBB: Did you and the band ever question whether or not that music would translate well, specifically as a Russian band doing this distinctly American style of music?
LS: First, I have to note that in Russia people generally confuse bluegrass and country music. They often lump it all together with wearing cowboy boots, cowboy hats, fringe jackets, etc. Likewise, American people often think that all Russian girls wear sarafans and play with matreshkas – so I guess we’re even, as far as cultural misconceptions go.
But I digress. When I joined the band, it was transitioning from bluegrass to country. Which was very good news for me as a piano player. But we continued to blend both styles in our music. We always strived to be more than a novelty act, namely Russian kids playing American music, as all the individuals in the band were highly skilled on their respective instruments, and we studied the authentic sound in great detail. But I suppose we could never be truly “authentic,” as we were coming from such a different background than most country (or bluegrass) acts. So the record labels – and we went through five or six major record deals – didn’t quite know how to market us. In the end, after releasing two albums, scoring a Grammy nomination, appearing on 60 Minutes, and getting chronicled in a documentary film, The Ballad of Bering Strait, the group disbanded in 2006.
BBB: Why do you think that in general, bluegrass music has such international appeal?
LS: Bluegrass is undoubtedly unique. From its largely acoustic sound, to the technical prowess required, to the very specific way that vocal harmonies are structured — which I happen to love and often employ. And then it usually sounds so happy, played in all major keys, even while the lyrics talk about sorrow or perishing in the mountains… Where else can you find that? It certainly appeals to Russian sense of melancholy.
BBB: What have you been doing since leaving the band?
LS: I am now a solo recording artist, with three independent releases under my belt since my departure. I am also a studio musician, which is currently my main focus. As far as the latter, I have recorded with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Sir Christopher Lee and John Ford Coley, as well as a multitude of independent artists and songwriters. I specialize in recording vocals, keyboards, arranging strings and more – and I have a dedicated website highlighting my session work, www.VocalsKeysEtc.com. I record in multiple genres, such as pop, rock, folk, country and, of course, bluegrass!
To find out more about Lydia Salnikova, visit her online.