He’s So Vain: Why Russ Wilson Loves Conducting

Leader of the band Russ Wilson loves conducting, drumming, and singing. Photo by Megan Marascalco.

Leader of the band
Russ Wilson loves conducting, drumming, and singing. Photo by Megan Marascalco.

Hendersonville-based multi-genre music man Russ Wilson has played drums with some big blues, jazz, and rock names — including Bob Margolin (guitarist for Muddy Waters), harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, and David Johansen of the New York Dolls. And he’s led his own dance and show combos numbering three to 33 — but he also loves to step out from behind the retro-cool traps and croon a bit. The 49-year-old music man appreciates a good melody and a witty quip.

Bold Life: You do several things well. What is your absolute favorite?

Russ Wilson: Conducting. I love to play drums, I love to sing. But I love to conduct, and certainly want to do more of that. I’m putting together this ragtime orchestra so I can conduct more.

What is it about conducting?

I’m tremendously vain. I guess it’s a sense of authority or control — that, you know, you wave the stick and 15, 20, 30, 40 musicians play and they’re supposed to follow you. I’ve had the opportunity to conduct George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” four times, and well … put a baton in your hands and stand in front of a group of musicians and see what happens. It’s a totally different feeling.

Has being a drummer helped you as a conductor?

Oh, yeah. Well, the drummer is in the driver’s seat. The drummer has to know what the whole band is doing, but pull them, [too]. Like, “It’s okay, you keep doing that, but do it at this tempo.”

Was drums your first instrument?

I played clarinet long enough to prove that I stunk on that instrument, but I’ve been a drummer for, hold on, 36 years. I’ve been a drummer since I was 13, and I played my first professional gig at 15.

You’re still leading bands and producing shows. What keeps you going?

I have a mortgage, a car payment, and a second wife. I got married two months ago. Besides that, there’s a lot of music that I want to play. I like to make a little bread, and there are particular kinds of music that I want to play, so I either put it together myself or I sit at home.

I understand that your “History of Jazz” project will feature a different themed show each month this year.

Nearly every style of jazz is being played in Asheville, so why not use those bands and musicians and put together a chronological history of jazz in a live performance [in Hendersonville]? In February, we’ll feature two ragtime piano players and my new 15-piece Euphonic Ragtime Orchestra, playing turn-of-the-century ragtime arrangements. March is going to be 1920s jazz, featuring The Lowdown Sires and the Firecracker Jazz Band. We’re not doing every detailed genre of jazz, but we’re certainly going to cover a lot of ground.

So, just a hunch — are you good in the kitchen, too?

I love to cook — of course I do. I just don’t have time to do it.

Russ Wilson & The Lowdown Sires play traditional jazz in the style of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton for Trinity Presbyterian Church’s Wednesday Night Live Series on Wednesday, February 3. 6:30pm. 900 Blythe Street, Hendersonville. Free. 828-692-6114. Wilson conducts his Euphonic Ragtime Orchestra at ISIS Restaurant & Music Hall on Sunday, February 7, at 8pm as the second part of his History of Jazz series. 743 Haywood Road, Asheville. 828-575-2737. For more info on upcoming gigs, visit www.everswinging.com.

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