We had the good fortune of connecting with Russell Willis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Russell, what do you attribute your success to?
We formed Western Bling to pay tribute to and preserve the genre of western swing music. We also play jazz/swing standards and classic country. People today might not be directly familiar with these songs, but it really resonates when we play live. These genres all thrived in dancehalls and clubs in the 1930s through the 1950s. The music is meant for live entertainment and dancing. People are drawn in and it creates a nostalgia of sorts. People often comment on how we sound like a movie soundtrack. It’s fun to introduce people to these classic tunes and to do our part to keep them alive. Our success is unique because it’s not about creating new music or fitting into a current trend. By doing the exact opposite, people find it refreshing and unique.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Western Bling is made of mixture of full-time and part-time musicians. When we formed this group, it was decided up front that our goals were to push ourselves musically and to preserve live western swing. While the money is still important, this is a passion project first and foremost. Other gigs are often focused on paying bills, but this group is about something different. For me, this project was a chance to develop my pedal steel playing and Chet Atkins style thumb-picking on guitar. Our drummer, Gus Alvarado, came from a rock background, but wanted to develop his ability as a jazz musician. Ellen Story used this group not just to build on her fiddle playing, but to really step forward as a lead vocalist. We are all far better musicians than we were five years ago, because we continue to push one another to be excellent at our craft.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
My favorite thing about Houston is the food. Most people know that we have a diverse city, and that really shines in the culinary scene. I care more about finding casual/everyday places than high end restaurants where most of us only eat on occasion. Whether it’s Indian food on Hillcroft, Korean food on Long Point, of Vietnamese food in Bellaire, there are countless options in Houston. As far as bars, I’ve always lived inside of the 610 loop and tend to spend my time in Montrose and the Heights. Bars like Ladybirds, Shady Acres Saloon, and Axelrad and important to me as a musician as well as a patron. Rudyard’s is another place that I’ve spent countless nights. I think that most people in Houston tend to prefer whatever their neighborhood bar is more than a destination. Live music can be tricky in Houston, because there not a venue that stands out as much as a collection of places where there might be music. Jazz is my favorite genre for live music and it happens every night, as long as you know the right places to look. Part of what makes Houston challenging for visitors is that it can be hard to know what’s happening and where it’s happening.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Western Bling has thrived largely because of strong support for live music in Houston. Western swing is thought of as synonymous with the state of Texas, but there really isn’t anyone else focused on the genre in our hometown. As soon as we started playing in 2016, we had support from local swing dancers, jazz musicians, country fans, and venues who wanted us to succeed. Ladybird’s bar gave us our first venue and regular slot to play live. Soon after, we were playing at Axelrad, Presidio, Shady Acres Saloon, and Goodnight Charlie’s on a regular basis. We’ve also had support from other groups focused on a similar goal of preserving swing music. Boomtown Brass, Swing Rendezvous, and Bayou City Swing have worked with us to cultivate a bit of a swing revival that spans across different sub genres. All venues and bands have struggled through 2020, but Houston has the talent and commitment to keep this music flourishing.