American Routes Shortcuts: Catherine Russell

Jun 23, 2017

Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. This week we feature blues singer Catherine Russell. Her dad was Louis Armstrong’s musical director and her mom was bassist for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.  Here’s Catherine on her musical upbringing and the canon of female-fronted blues.

Catherine Russell: My mother took me to the opera. We went to hear classical music and jazz. She took me to hear Thelonious Monk and Freddie Hubbard. And then she also didn’t limit me. She never said, “Oh that’s terrible, turn that off!” So I was able to listen to rock’n’roll. Anything I wanted to.

Nick Spitzer: Given the company that your mother kept and the way she was able to be in the music business, did you ever hear conversations about difficulties that women had as performers?

CR: Many, many, many stories. My mom used to talk about arriving at gigs with her amplifier and her bass and being laughed at. And it hardened her in a way that she hardly let people help her load in and load out her instruments. She always did it herself. And she would instill in me learn how to read and write music so that you know what you want and you know how to communicate with musicians, so you will get the respect.

NS: Can you say a little about discovering that world of 1920s and ’30s music, particularly the women singers?

CR: Even in the bawdiness, and maybe the crassness in some of the lyric, there was a dignity in the delivery. And even in those times, the women were like, “This is me and take me or leave me,” which is what I like about it.

NS: Yeah, it’s kind of a contemporary vision in a way, or it should be…

CR: Yes, but still within those times. So when they deliver those lyrics, they can be delivering them in a very demure fashion. But then the lyric will say something completely different or it will be a double entendre, as in Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man.” If you don’t know what it’s about, it’s just nice music. But if you read a little bit into it, wow, it’s fun!

NS: What do you have to do to get from 1920 to a decade into the 21st century?

CR: One of the things I love about singing is the different vocabularies that happen in different time periods. So this was coming out of slavery, coming out of field hollers, coming out of church. So I try to study the style that all of these women sang in and then picture myself in some of these places where they might have sung and I think in the case of all of these vocalists—Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday—everybody was working out personal issues for themselves and that’s why the music is so strong. That’s why it’s timeless.

To hear the full program, tune into WWNO Saturday at 7 or Sunday at 6, or listen at