The Famous Lost Words of Russell Bartlett
By Richard Smith, Metroplex Insights
Veteran songwriter-troubadour Russell Bartlett, who grew up in rural Washington state, made his debut at South by Southwest in 1998. Bartlett says he started writing songs when he was a young child. “I still remember the very first one,” he laughs. “We lived on the Tulalip Reservation and I made up a song about this Native American fellow I used to see when I’d go to the grocery store with my mother.” It was terrible, but I think I was only six or seven years old!”
Bartlett later attended the University of Washington, earning an English degree and singing with a Seattle alternative rock band called Bundle of Hiss. Little did he know the force by which the “Grunge” explosion was about to burst on Seattle. Regardless, the style of music he secretly admired was the one his mother had introduced him to as a child. “She played Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Jim Reeves, Waylon Jennings—even a little Dylan. Guess I was ashamed to admit it as a Seattle Punk, but that stuff just seeped into my consciousness as a kid. And I really grew to love it later. That was the kind of songwriting I wanted to do.”
After college, Bartlett worked in journalism and advertising, eventually landing a job at the American Statesman and moving his family to the Austin area. But songwriting remained the pursuit that most animated him. In 1996 he landed a small recording deal with the tiny Republic of Texas Records, working a nine-to-five job and raising his family by day, recording and performing the Austin club circuit after hours. “That was exhausting,” he laments. “I spread myself way too thin and wasn’t doing anything particularly well. It was sort of a recipe for failure. But to paraphrase Tom T. Hall, ‘when you love something enough, you go where your heart wants to go.’”
Bartlett went on to record a handful of records of original material over a span of almost twenty years, backed by some of Austin’s finest musicians and praised by some of its most noteworthy critics. He toured in the U.S., and Europe, including several folk festivals and opening for the likes of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Rodriguez and Townes Van Zandt (In his liner notes for Bartlett’s 1997 album, One Hand on The Plow, Van Zandt wrote “exceptionally good songs, I wish I’d written them”). Some of these artists were Bartlett’s songwriting heroes, and to have become their acquaintance was a dream come true.
But as many aspiring artists will attest, art is a demanding mistress. In 2014, Bartlett largely quit performing live to focus on family and other pursuits. He still writes, records and publishes original material. “Whether a blessing or a curse, songs just show up at my door like strangers,” he muses. “Probably always will. Some refuse to be ignored. So you gotta let ‘em in, ya know? See what they have to say. I should probably consider moving.”