Quick – what are the first 5 things that pop into your head when you think bluegrass. Odds are, one of those things isn’t “Russia.” But there is bluegrass here, and one small but dedicated group of musicians and fans who form the Saint Petersburg Country Club have been pickin’ and grinnin’ together in the old imperial capital for 20 years now. Nothing to do with golf, the club’s members are simply people who love American bluegrass and country music, and all the goes with it, from the duds to the dances.
The man behind the music is Vladimir Gusyev, 58, whose band, Sunrise, entertains the faithful every last Sunday of the month from May through September. Gusyev plays traditional Scruggs style banjo way better than I do, and can hold his own flat-picking a guitar and slithering around on Dobro. Like so many of us, he was captivated years ago by recordings of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe that found their way into the former USSR on cassette tapes, which were duplicated and passed around.
Finding like-minded musicians has always been a challenge. For example, Saint Petersburg has always been chock full of violinists, but as we know a violinist does not a fiddler make. So Gusyev “rolled his own” in the form of his daughter, Anastasia, recently a mother herself, who share’s Dad’s enthusiasm for the music… and definitely renders on the fiddle.
I first met Volodya and Nastya in 2010 when the Consulate General of the United States sponsored the first joint Russian and American bluegrass festival, with Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick headlining the shows. (There’s a Facebook page here.) The event was repeated the following two years with Donna Ulisse and Bill Evans. By then, I was sitting in with Sunrise pretty regularly, trading off on guitar and banjo at Country Club gigs, with my American-accented vocals lending a bit of exotic authenticity for the local folks.
On Sunday, October 25 the Country Club celebrated its 20th anniversary, and it was my privilege to pick and sing with Sunrise on the occasion. It’s unfortunate that all most people know about is the geo-political shenanigans, carried on by the types that always get into that, and which make good media headlines. But there’s much more to the story and the people, as I know from living almost 2 decades among them. The Saint Petersburg Country Club is a classic example of how music can beat the odds and bridge barriers of language, culture and politics, bringing real people together on a very human level.