Russ Hooper: 74 years in bluegrass music and still gigging

Russ Hooper with Speedy Krise, and with Bluestone

This profile of Chesapeake region reso-guitar legend Russ Hooper is a contribution from Thomas Cook.

Russ Hooper of Baltimore, Maryland is a member of the Dobro Hall of Fame, has played on over 514 recorded tracks, and was asked to join two of the most  famous bands in bluegrass- Flatt & Scruggs and the County Gentlemen. He is a well known proponent of the classic style of resonator guitar playing, first popularized by Speedy Krise  and “Uncle” Josh Graves. Best of all, he is still playing superb resonator guitar.

The affable musician at 86 isn’t resting on his laurels and looking back on his illustrious career, although he is a repository of interesting stories about the Golden Era of bluegrass music. Rather, he is looking forward to the upcoming music season with his current band of 17 years; Bluestone.

“I keep doing it because I love the music,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting to those dates early, tuning up, and waiting for that adrenaline to hit me like it always does when the first note is played. I want to contribute – there is no ‘I’ in the word ‘team’.”

Russ has no regrets about his decision to keep his day job and turn down offers from Earl Scruggs and Charlie Waller to join their groups. “First, I met my wife Janice while we were working at Western Electric, and we are still married all these years later. Second, I had a four year old son at home and I wasn’t going to leave him to ride that bus with the Foggy Mountain Boys. And third, back then, there was no security at all. The entire music business was at best informal, and you had no protection. If Josh Graves had changed his mind and wanted to return [to the FoggyMountain Boys], I would have been out of a job.”

Russ has colorful stories about the promotors, music publishers, and record executives of the early days of bluegrass who were not known for their adherence to honesty or ethics. And he has interesting observations on the nature of fame.

“You don’t play this music to become rich or famous, because you probably won’t. You do it because you love the music. Bluegrass is like jazz; it doesn’t have a big share of the market, although you will make a lot of friends, and what you do will be appreciated.

But I was never motivated by bragging rights; because I played with famous people. I just wanted to nurture my God-given talent, and contribute what I can to the best of my ability… I play to please myself. You may get people cheering and hollering at a show, but an hour later when you see them at a Piggly Wiggly down the road, they won’t remember who you are.”

His excellent musicianship can be heard on about one-third of the cuts on the Rebel compilation, 70 Song Original Bluegrass Collection, as well as Walter Hensley’s seminal banjo LP, Pickin’ On New Grass. He hopes to re-record his song, This Heart of Mine, with Bluestone now that he has regained the publishing rights after a protracted effort. 

Russ advises younger musicians to work hard on their musicianship, and get with a good group of players with good timing. He understands why young groups work for free, but feels it undercuts established groups. “Thats one thing John Duffy made very clear to promoters when he started the Seldom Scene in the 1970s. John said, ‘You want us to play, you have to pay.’ He did  a favor for all musicians.”

Russ feels that he made some good decisions and is able to enjoy playing music on his own terms with a group of people he enjoys being with. “I played with Danny Curtis  of the Franklin County Boys for 55 years, and with Dick Laird of Bluestone for 15 years. I’m still picking with Carroll Swam of Bluestone; he and I played together in the Franklin County Boys many years ago. I treat people the way I want to be treated, I’ve played some good music, and I didn’t end up begging for change on the street outside the Ryman Auditorium.”

So, should you be at a carnival or festival in the Maryland/Pennsylvania area this summer, be on the lookout for Russ Hooper and Bluestone. He will be the musician who drove up from Baltimore early with a tuned up resonator guitar, a starched shirt, extra strings and picks, and a positive attitude, ready willing and able to play the classic bluegrass music he loves and plays so well.

You can write to Russ at: