The Famous Lost Words of Russell Bartlett

By Richard Smith, Metro Insights 

 The career of songwriter Russell Bartlett, who grew up in the Stanwood-Camano area, is as colorful as it is varied. To support his “dependency issues,” (as he refers to music), the former Seattle Grunge drummer/singer has held day jobs ranging from construction worker to newspaper journalist, all the while continuing to write, record and perform his eclectic, country-influenced brand of song. “With a family (including) four kids to support, over the years, necessity often dictated that I live in two worlds—sometimes more,” Bartlett says. 

As drummer and lead singer of Seattle’s seminal, pre-Nirvana-era (mid 1980’s) Grunge band, Bundle of Hiss, which formed in Stanwood, Bartlett and crew were early arrivals to what would soon become global rock & roll’s Ground Zero. “In those days, we might do a Pioneer Square show with Soundgarden and get paid by the club owner in only beer—bad beer,” he laughs. But on the cusp of the Grunge explosion, Bartlett left the band, got married, moved to Austin and pursued an entirely different style of music. “As anyone who knows me can attest,” he laments, “timing has never been my strong suit. Not sure if she deserves blame or credit, but my mother introduced me to Cash, Kristofferson and Dylan when I was very young. I just loved the lyrics, the stories and, even during my punk and hard-rock years, could never get it out of my system. So I figured that was the direction I was supposed to go.” 

In Austin Bartlett signed with Republic of Texas Records, a tiny (and now defunct) independent Houston label. Other influences he cites from that time are Mickey Newbury, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Joe South. “But once I discovered Townes Van Zandt, it was all over.” Bartlett says he and Van Zandt, the Texas folk-song writer whose stature has become larger than life over the past few decades, became friends in the years before TVZ’s death on New Year’s Day 1997. In 1996, Van Zandt wrote liner notes for Bartlett’s 1997 release “One Hand on the Plow.” Jeanene Van Zandt, Townes’ wife, published Bartlett’s early songs in Nashville. 

He recorded a handful of critically acclaimed albums of original material over a span of nearly twenty years, backed by some of Austin’s finest musicians. He’s toured multiple states, parts of Canada and Europe, and has played several prominent folk festivals. Over the years he has opened for the likes of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Rodriguez and, of course, Van Zandt. 

But as many aspiring musicians can relate, art is a demanding mistress. In 2014, Bartlett largely quit performing live for several years to focus on family and “other items of deferred maintenance.” However, the Post-Covid era has, he says, brought new vigor and enthusiasm to both his songcraft and his desire to perform live. “I made up my first song at age nine and, for better or worse, will probably be doing this until I’m told to stop—either by my Creator or by my audience.” He says songs show up at his door “like strangers, often unannounced. They refuse to be ignored. So you gotta let ‘em in, you know, see what they have to say. Maybe it’s time I consider moving.”