Sound Naturally

Johnny Russell Records His Classic Songs in Bluegrass Settings

“This is what I envisioned when I wrote the song — with a banjo and a fiddle…” says Grand Ole Opry star Johnny Russell of his most famous composition, “Act Naturally.”

Over three decades after he penned the classic number, Russell’s musical vision is fully realized on a new album, Actin’ Naturally, for OMS Records. Released Tuesday (April 18), the set features an all-star lineup that gives Russell’s original songs a bluegrass-inspired edge.

Buck Owens, Marty Stuart and banjo player Earl Scruggs join Russell on “Act Naturally.” Scruggs recently appeared on the Opry with Russell. Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Benny Martin, Bobby Osborne, The Whites, Josh Graves and Bobby Bare are among the other artists who lend their talents to Russell’s latest endeavor.

“Act Naturally” can be classified as a career song both for Russell and Owens, who had his first No. 1 Billboard single with it in 1963. It held the top spot for four weeks and cemented Russell’s reputation as one of country music’s pre-eminent songwriters.

When Owens’ labelmates, the Beatles, covered the song in 1965, Russell found himself in the international spotlight. “The Beatles were big fans of Buck’s, and that’s how they came to record the song,” he recalls. “I never thought that it would be recorded by the Beatles, [but] I’m sure not complaining.”

To date, “Act Naturally” has sold an estimated 20 million copies in its various incarnations. The song resurfaced during this year’s Academy Awards telecast in a commercial for Blockbuster. Like many great songs, the number came together in a matter of minutes, the result of a casual comment made by Russell during a phone conversation.

“I had a date, and the record company I was working for called and told me I had to come to Hollywood for a session,” he recalls. “I called the girl and told her I had to cancel our date. She asked, ’Where you going?’ and I said, ’I’m going to Hollywood. They’re gonna put me in a movie and make me a big star.’ I wrote the song in about 15 or 20 minutes.”

Getting the song recorded was an entirely different matter. Industry naysayers proclaimed it wasn’t hit material. For a while it appeared as though they were correct. Russell pitched “Act Naturally” for a couple of years with no success.

Eventually, the song found its way to Owens. Vonnie Morrison, with whom Russell shares writing credit, was working at the time as a singer in Owens’ band at the Fresno Barn. Morrison gave Owens an acetate to listen to, but the bandleader was more interested in the flip side, a ballad penned by Russell. The song continued to languish until Owens’ guitar player, Don Rich, learned the number. According to Russell, Owens and Rich were riding along in their truck one day when Rich began singing the song. The number had grown on Owens, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“You never expect anything out of a song when you write it,” Russell reasons. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to it. It’s like one of your kids, you just hope for the best for it.” Many of Russell’s songs have found favor with the country music elite. His work has been recorded by The Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt), George Strait and Gene Watson, among others.

Russell wrote or co-wrote all 14 of the songs featured in this new collection. Included are “Got No Reason Now for Going Home,” a Top 10 record for Watson in 1984, and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” (co-written with Tommy Rocco and Dickey Lee), a No. 1 hit for Strait the same year. Parton appears on “Making Plans,” which she originally released in 1980 with former singing partner Porter Wagoner.

Initially, Russell had no interest in becoming an active recording artist again. After hearing OMS Records’ owner Hugh Moore explain his idea for an acoustic project, the singer/songwriter became intrigued with the idea of revisiting his old song catalog. After a few phone calls, the lineup was set. “We used the McCoury Boys [Ronnie and Robbie]. I really enjoyed that part of the recording.”

A number of country musicians have released bluegrass albums recently, among them Dolly Parton, Jim Lauderdale and longtime bluegrass fan Tom T. Hall. Russell predicts more singers will follow. “One of the reasons you’ll see it is because of the shows you get to work,” he says. “I realized when I was doing my first bluegrass festival — the first two or three songs — that I could hear everything. You’re away from that full set of drums, and you can hear all the instruments.”

Though he has been playing them on a limited basis so far, Russell is enthusiastic about doing more festivals. “The bluegrass festivals that I’ve been working are so enjoyable,” he observes, “because they’re so much like the old country music package shows we used to do. I just love that.”