Bering Strait’s Perseverance Spans Continents

The Ballad of Bering Strait, a two-hour documentary film directed by Nina Gilden Seavey, will have its world television premiere this Friday (March 21) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.

It’s easy to lose sight of goals, especially when a mountain-size obstacle course is standing in the way. Still, the six members of Bering Strait never gave up their vision to play music in America.

The Russian band’s 15-year odyssey took them across the ocean and through the language-culture barrier. Even as a couple of record deals fell by the wayside, the dedicated musicians struggled to survive in the fiercely competitive country music industry.

Now they’re starting to win the race, which became apparent when their debut single, the original composition, “Bearing Straight,” earned a 2003 Grammy nomination for best country instrumental performance. Until then, they were foreigners even in their homeland.

“No one in Russia knows who we are,” lead vocalist Natasha Borzilova tells CMT News. “They [the Russian media] saw the news and they started researching, looking on the ’Net, trying to make phone calls to find out who were. They didn’t even have our pictures, so they were showing somebody else. They were showing Nelly and J. Lo and talking about us.”

“We became like national heroes, little heroes for a day,” adds Ilya Toshinsky, who plays lead guitar and banjo.

After forming in 1988, Bering Strait played bluegrass music for the first several years of its existence. “When people in Russia hear a banjo, they think it’s country music,” explains keyboardist-vocalist Lydia Salnikova. “They don’t think it’s bluegrass.”

“I had to learn steel guitar from Dobro because when we started playing real country music there was almost no Dobro,” says Alexander “Sasha” Ostrovsky. “There was no banjo. It was before Dixie Chicks , so bluegrass wasn’t that popular yet. We had to learn from the records of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson , and we just learned all their songs and practiced them to death.”

Borzilova notes, “We started at the time when it was really popular to try everything American because we were just getting into the whole democracy of Russia. Everything was changing and, for us, America was something that meant freedom, freedom of everything. We wanted to play this music because it meant freedom for us.”

“It started out as a hobby for us,” Toshinsky says, “and then we were bound to play at restaurants and bars in Moscow if you want to keep on playing country music because there was no way to go to next level, and we set a goal to do it very seriously and see how far we can get.”

The band members made several trips to the U.S., honing their skills in the studio with Nashville veterans like Brent Maher who produced their self-titled, debut CD. Maher offered the musicians plenty of leeway in the studio, at one point suggesting that they try different approaches to the recording process. Salnikova jokes, “I said, ’Brent, we are Russians. You tell us what to do and we do it.'”

“We didn’t have like a goal — ’OK, let’s get a record deal,'” Ostrovsky says. “It kind of got to the point where we were trying to do that without even knowing it.”

“The more we end up staying here, the more we had to think about, ’OK, is it really going to pay off?'” Salnikova adds. “Is it really what we want to do because we have to survive?”

Tim DuBois, who headed Arista Records Nashville, signed Bering Strait to a contract in 1999. The group continued recording, but a year later, Arista’s country division became a part of the RCA Label Group. DuBois took Bering Strait with him when he was hired to create a new record company for Gaylord Entertainment. By the end of 2000, Gaylord abandoned plans for the record label. DuBois began weighing other job offers, but Bering Strait again had no outlet for their music.

“There was a period of six or seven months where we didn’t have any deal, and that was probably the worst period,” Ostrovsky says. Borzilova adds, “The money was tight, and we had a fire in the apartment. The guys’ apartment burned down, and it was all sort of coming down on us at the same moment.”

“We probably picked one of the worst times to come to Nashville because country industry was kind of slowing down a little bit,” Toshinsky interjects. “And as a result of that, a lot of labels started closing down,”

Persevering, Bering Strait and DuBois were reunited in 2002 after DuBois and former MCA Nashville executive Tony Brown launched the upstart label, Universal South. The band finally wrapped up the recording of its first album, a project that had started in the fall of 1997.

“I think when we first started coming over I thought it was going to be like a fairy tale because everyone surrounded us with [stories of] overnight success, ” Toshinsky says. “We learned a lot about real life in America, and it is not a fairy tale anymore.”

Nurtured along by manager Mike Kinnamon, who not only took them under his wing but also under his roof during tough economic times, the band stuck together with a never-say-die attitude.

“Of course, it’s passion for doing music, but on the other hand, it’s just not wanting to go home as a failure,” Salnivkova notes. “The band has been together for so long we can’t give up now. We want to keep doing it for a long time. In order to do that, we have to sell records.”

The band prides itself on its live performances. Ostrovsky explains, “That’s the time when we feel the most together as a band.” Over the years, those live performances have helped to nourish the band’s enthusiasm and optimism.

“There was a show when we opened for Trisha Yearwood back in 2001,” Toshinsky recalls. “I know it was big deal for everybody [in the band]. When you live here and you lose a deal, you don’t even know what you’ve got anymore. It’s not as exciting. And then you go out and play for 8,000 people and we get two standing ovations — and they had never heard us before — that was like, ’This is why we are doing this.'”