Ask any musician in his or her twenties who their biggest musical influence is. Chances are, you’ll hear about the first time they heard Nirvana or Public Enemy. But ask Sam or Jimi Nasset and both answer, “My dad.” It’s a fitting response from sons who grew up behind the bars of roadhouses all across Montana, watching their father work the crowd with rockabilly licks squeezed from a 1961 Stratocaster.
At 53, Russ Nasset’s wavy locks have turned as gray as the ash from the Marlboro Reds he smokes. Russ sits on the bench of a picnic table in the front yard of his home on 8th St. in Missoula, in front of a porch that serves as a hanger for a pair of fuzzy dice and a wind chime. Below the ornaments rest an old skull and antlers, and two rows of geraniums in full fuchsia bloom. Inside the house, the walls are lined with hanging guitars, a framed 45 rpm single of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” and plenty of Dylan and Redding tapes. If the scattered CDs, barbells and cigarette butts could talk, they might say, “Yeah, it’s a bachelor pad.” A walk into the kitchen for a beer reveals all kinds of hot sauces and chili powders for spicy cooking, and outside on the picnic bench, Russ admits that he’s quite a skilled chef. He admits it in a low, deep baritone, the one that lends him the quintessential rockabilly voice. It’s the kind of baritone you hear on television voice-overs, but this man isn’t cut out to be an actor. He’s got a hard stare, but when he smiles or laughs, his countenance reveals itself as wizened rather than mean.
Russ is just the right age to have seen the advent of rock and roll, back in the 1950s—a first-generation rocker. Growing up on the high line in Shelby, Mont., he fell into the rhythm and blues sound as soon as he found it. After attending the University of Montana and studying English for a few years, he moved to Oregon to follow a girlfriend. He had planned to go to school there, but then he got his hands on an acoustic guitar and began playing solo folk gigs. Russ has been riding the musical wave ever since.
“I play music because I don’t know what else I’d do,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, really. I’ve had a few scrape jobs, but I haven’t done anything besides just play music for a long time now.”
Russ is able to eke out a living with his band, Russ Nasset and the Revelators. He sings rockabilly and old country and blues numbers, mostly. The band gigs almost every weekend and often during the week as well, playing a mix of originals and covers, most of the latter being obscure, weathered standards that at least half of the audience doesn’t even realize are covers. He’s played with some serious blues musicians over the years as well, including Big Walter Horton and Cash McCall. Although he’s older now, he says touring is easier than it was years ago, when he was raising three sons as a single father. Russ met his ex-wife, Linda Dayshaw, at one of his shows.
“Of course I did,” he laughs. “That’s the only place I meet girls.”
A group of UM student filmmakers produced a documentary on the Nasset family in the spring, and Russ feels the need to clear up what he considers an inaccurate spin.
“They kept trying to push me to slant it so it was like she abandoned the family, you know, which is not true. She loves her sons and they love her. Everything’s cool in that regard.”
Russ and Dayshaw split up in 1986. The three Nasset boys—Jimi, the oldest, and Sam and John, the younger twins—traveled from house to house for a time, but eventually a decision was reached: the boys chose to live with their father. Still, they would frequently stay with their mother when Russ was on the road playing. Other times, he would take them along with him.
Nasset family musicianship traces its lineage back to Russ’ grandfather, who was a country fiddler in the woods of Minnesota. Russ never heard him play, but he’s heard the stories of the country barn dances. Growing up, there was always a piano in Russ’ house, and his mother played gospel songs on it. Pass that heritage down to a father raising three sons from roadhouse to roadhouse and it’s no wonder music runs deep in the Nasset family.
“It’s in my blood,” says Jimi, a crew-cutted 25-year-old who’s preparing to go on tour with his own jazz/hip-hop band, OddAbility. “I can remember my dad sneaking me and my friends into the bar. We’d go out to the Lumberjack to watch my dad play at six years old. I pretty much grew up behind the bar watching my dad.”
The rusted blue and gray 1980 Dodge Ram has been a band van since it left the factory. The Revelators bought it from bluegrass legends the Dillards, and now Russ and one of his twin sons, Sam, pack it with gear, ready to add more gig-miles to the speedometer, which already tops 500,000. On a Friday evening in June, Russ drives the van to the Wild Horse Saloon in Seeley Lake. Seated directly behind his father, Sam Nasset, 23, looks out on the mountains. Sam’s hair is greased back in traditional rockabilly style, and like the rest of the band, he’s got his cowboy boots on. It took Sam some time to embrace the style held dear by his father. “I didn’t think I fit into the whole cowboy thing,” Sam says. “In high school it was like, those guys were hicks and we were skaters and we didn’t like those guys.”
These days, Sam wholeheartedly espouses the joys of rockabilly, in both music and style. He’s got tattoos and hopes of affording a Harley someday. In high school, Sam was into hip-hop and punk music. His first band was a ska ensemble called Four Cent Stomp. Later, he “screamed and played a lot of loud chords” in a punk band, the Evaders. But now, Sam is completely enthralled with rockabilly, and he seems to have a good sense of the genre’s history.
“It’s from the ’50s, which was a much different time,” Sam says. “It was right after World War II, everyone was happy, the world looked good, so music was about fun and partying. I like it in that respect, that it’s about having a good time. And it’s not hard, you know?”
Indeed, most rockabilly songs are made up of three chords, with variations thrown in here or there. But as Sam knows, there are intricacies to playing the music well in a live setting that untrained eyes and ears might miss.
“Most people don’t realize that it takes a certain talent to be able to play in a bar band. To be able to do a song only knowing what the key is and what the feel is. Dad does that every night: ‘Alright, here’s a new song, it’s in the key of A and it’s a shuffle. It comes off the five. Here we go. 1, 2, 3, 4…’ You know, I’ve never heard that song before in my life, and that’s showtime. You can’t fuck up then. If you fuck up, everyone’s going to know it.”
Sam’s a happy-go-lucky guitarist. He smiles a lot, when he’s playing and when he’s not. He gets the occasional strange look behind the deli counter at the Good Food Store, where he works, when he starts fingering an imaginary guitar, a song from the night before still stuck in his head. To hear him wail at the Wild Horse Saloon in Seeley Lake, it’s hard to believe that he’s only been performing this style of music for four years. Sam is convinced that he never would have come as far as he has without his father’s support.
“Dad gave me the opportunity to play this kind of music, because no one else would have hired me. I didn’t know how to play it. If dad hadn’t given me that opportunity, I don’t know what I’d be doing now. Maybe I’d still be playing punk. Maybe I wouldn’t be playing at all. But he gave me the encouragement by saying, ‘You can play this stuff. I know you can.’ And eventually I figured out, ‘Yeah, I guess I can.’”
The wooden walls and posts of the Wild Horse Saloon absorb sound, not that there’s much of it when the band arrives. The joint is practically empty. As the Revelators open with a Carl Perkins number, the black and red checkerboard dance floor before them remains vacant, and stays so throughout the first set. At set break, the band is disheartened. The reporter is the only one clapping. Between sets, Sam stays close to his father’s side. He is, admittedly, shy for a guy in a rock and roll band. Sam says that when he first started, he’d just watch his father play Keno between sets. Now, he’s slightly more social, but he remains an introvert by nature.
The band still has three sets to go, and gradually dancers accumulate. By the time the band busts out with its arrangement of Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake Boogie,” they’re dancing all the way to the back row of the checkerboard floor, as if to say king me. Russ and Sam trade solos, playing back to back. There is a dual kinetic and cerebral energy to their playing, a father-and-son chemistry that the crowd swallows whole.
Russ shows off by playing guitar behind his neck. The band takes requests for Van Morrison. A standard written by Terry Fell and made popular by Buck Owens, “Truck Drivin’ Man,” puts Nasset father and son to work on vocal harmonies, singing, “Pour me another cup of coffee/For it is the best in the land/I’ll put a nickel in the juke box/Play me that ‘Truck Drivin’ Man.’” As is the case with many Revelators covers, the band has created its own take on the song. Sam’s “Truck Drivin’ Man” solo samples Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser.” As the fourth set draws to a close, Russ steps to the mic with a rock and roll swagger.
“Hope y’all like the punk rock music,” Russ says, as the band launches into a raucous rendition of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
When Sam takes a solo, an attentive observer can decipher the pride in Russ’ eyes.
“It’s cool to watch how far he’s progressed,” says Russ. “He’s tearing it up on guitar and he’s starting to figure stuff out that I can’t, or that I don’t take the time to figure out. You know, I play what I play and that’s it. But he’s young enough that he’s going to sit down and learn something new.”
Sam’s enthusiasm for playing reminds Russ of himself at his son’s age. While the late nights have become more tedious to Russ, Sam is still excited by road life.
“All that enthusiasm kind of put a spark back into the band, you know?” Russ says.
“It’s kind of gone past father and son with Sam and I,” he continues. “We’re like…pals—pals that work in a band together. Everybody in the band treats him just like he’s another one of the band guys.”
The Nassets have a slew of road stories. They ought to. The Revelators have played everywhere from Clinton, Montana’s Testicle Festival, a debaucherous mixture of alcohol, nudity and general mayhem, to the opposite end of the spectrum, including two appearances before Gov. Judy Martz, one of which was a dinner fundraiser where the band received complaints for playing too loud, even with their amps turned down to the lowest settings. Sitting side by side, Sam suggests that Russ tell the one about the biker bar in Eugene. Sam wasn’t born when the storied events took place, but he knows it well.
“You talking ‘bout that woman that sat on my lap?” Russ asks.
“Yeah,” says Sam.
“Oh, rude. I was all styled out in my western suit.”
“Tell him. This one’s funny as shit.”
Russ takes a breath, then begins, “I was lookin’ sharp, you know? So during the break, this woman comes and sits on my lap.”
“This is not really a great story.”
“C’mon,” Sam chides. “It’s hilarious.”
“Well, she wasn’t all that bad looking, but she’s kind of drunk, and she’s talking to me and all of a sudden, on my black suit, I felt this warm, wet sensation. I’m like, whoa! Shoved her off of me. She’d peed right on me.”
Sam has heard the story often enough that he knows it better than his dad.
“Sorry, daddy?” Sam probes.
“Oh yeah,” says Russ. “I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You peed on me!’ She says, ‘Sorry, daddy.’”
Russ looks at his son, who still regales in the anecdote.
“You can’t put that in the paper,” Russ says.
After packing up the Ram, the band leaves for Missoula at two a.m. On the way back, Sam talks about getting a “sleeve tattoo,” the kind that covers an entire arm or leg. Russ has just finished rocking, drinking and smoking, and his son may be his band peer, but Russ is still a parent.
“That’s fucked, man,” Russ says of the tattoo idea. “Don’t do that, Sam.”
He also warns his son, who mentions creating some sparkler-and-duct-tape “firework bombs” for the Fourth of July, to be careful.
“I wouldn’t mess with those, Sam,” he says. “You’ll blow off your fingers and be a harmonica player by next week.”
How do you rebel against a rock and roll father? For Sam, the answer is, “You don’t.” You embrace your father’s lifestyle.
Jimi, Russ’s oldest son at 25, concedes that it’s difficult to stage a teenage rebellion when your father is just so, well, cool.
“When we were waking up to go to school, he’d still be up from the night before,” Jimi says.
But Jimi did find his form of mutiny, albeit within the musical tradition: rap music.
Slapping at the attacking mosquitos while simultaneously trying to take a sip of beer in his father’s front yard, Jimi begins, “I grew up listening to old soul and Bob Dylan with my dad, so when I first started watching Yo! MTV Raps and shit like that, I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ And I’ve just loved it ever since.”
The eldest brother is a DJ and MC in Missoula’s OddAbility, formerly Moksha. Whereas Moksha played jammy funk fusion tunes, OddAbility focuses on heavy electric jazz and hip-hop. At a practice session in a well-padded basement rehearsal space, OddAbility’s sound is as far from Russ Nasset and the Revelators as possible. While the Revelators stick to familiar, danceable three and five chord progressions, OddAbility is nearly impossible to dance to, playing the kind of esoteric free-form jazz that caused traditionalist Miles Davis fans to scratch their heads at Bitch’s Brew. Jimi spins and scratches records as his band joins in with bass, drums, guitars, keyboard and sax. Much of the music is instrumental, though Jimi raps over several songs as well.
“It’s hard to be a tree in the middle of the desert because it never fucking rains,” Jimi raps the refrain to a Rage Against the Machine-influenced hip-hop number.
Jimi began writing rhymes in sixth grade and has always been considered a talented singer. He won the award for “Male Vocalist of the Year” as a member of the Hellgate High School men’s chorus (a group in which Sam also sang). Most of the lyrics Jimi writes are stream of consciousness. This, too, seems a direct opposite to rockabilly composition, which tends to be more formulaic, with traditional subject matter focusing on heartbreak, the road, drinking, etc. Jimi says that he gave his father’s stuff a shot, but it wasn’t for him.
“I started to learn how to play guitar for about three months before I was like, ah, I’m more into rhyming and hip-hop than playing blues riffs and rockabilly.”
By all Nasset accounts, Russ never forced his music on his sons.
“My dad always encouraged me to play music, but he wasn’t like, ‘I want you to play blues or rockabilly,’” says Jimi.
In what may be a lesson to every parent who hopes their kids pick up instruments, Sam, who did follow in his father’s footsteps, echoes Jimi’s sentiments.
“He never pushed me.” If he had, says Sam, “When I hit that rebellious youth stage, I probably would have hated guitar, you know, if it was ‘dad made me do it.’”
Of Jimi’s hip-hop sound, Russ says, “I think it’s great, man. I mean, it’s not my style exactly.”
Even so, Russ has actually played with OddAbility (in the Moksha days).
“They were doing that kind of soul, funk, hip-hop thing, so I just jammed on guitar with them,” he says. “It was fun. I’d never played hip-hop before, but I’ve played a lot of ’60s-style soul—Otis Redding and that kind of stuff—and that’s where it all comes from, I think.”
Russ’ performance with Jimi’s hip-hop band took place at the Blue Heron in Missoula. Asked if he played originals or covers, Russ says, “I don’t know what they were, man. Jimi just told me, ‘Here’s the key, man,’ and pointed to me when it was my turn.” Rather than facing the sterotypical how can you listen to that rap crap parental reaction, Jimi found that there was no solid way to revolt against his dad, because Russ kept an open mind.
“People that I’ve played in bands with in the past have been like, ‘Awh, this rap stuff sucks,’ but I was like, ‘Man, you’re not even listening, you know?’ It doesn’t matter if they get into some groove and don’t make a chord change forever. So what? Bo Diddley did the same thing. You only need one chord anyway,” Russ says with a chortle.
Just as Russ has played guitar with Jimi’s band, Jimi has rapped with the Revelators, a usual occurrence at a Sean Kelly’s gig in Missoula.
“I like rapping with my dad,” Jimi says. “The guy knows everything about music, so if I say, ‘Okay, play this,’ in two seconds, he’s got it.’”
While Russ knows fairly little about hip-hop compared to his son, he did teach Jimi an important and often overlooked hip-hop skill: mic control.
“Dad taught me how to hold a mic right, which ninety percent of the MCs that are out there don’t know how to do,” says Jimi. “Everybody thinks they look cooler if they cup the mic. But if you’re not kissing that shit, nobody can understand what you say.”
Jimi is, in some sense, a kingpin of the Missoula hip-hop scene. He hosts an underground hip-hop radio show on KBGA from 10 p.m. to midnight on Wednesday nights. He is also Rockin Rudy’s resident hip-hop expert, and he books rap shows for Hungis Productions. One such show was the Wu-Tang Clan. At the last minute, Jimi was told that two members of Wu-Tang would not be showing up, so he attempted to keep the crowd pacified with some spoken word rap. About half-way through, the crowd started booing him, but he didn’t let it get to him, drawing on a calmness he attributes to his father’s example.
“I just took it in stride and said, ‘Fuck it. Whatever.’ I think that was partly thanks to my dad, because a lot of times when he plays they don’t have a full crowd, but you still have to be able to rock a show, even if there’s zero people there.”
Normally, Jimi isn’t booed. In fact, when OddAbility opened up for Chicago hip-hop crew All Natural at the Raven, the crowd was so into it that the rappers from All Natural, one of Jimi’s favorite acts, invited him to freestyle with them at the end of their set. Still, Jimi faces more of an uphill battle than do Russ and Sam. Rockabilly is favored all over the West. But, Jimi explains, he’s often brushed aside as a rapper simply because he’s from Missoula—a city not exactly rich in “street credibility.”
Jimi doesn’t look at his hip-hop career as a rebellion against his father, though he certainly went through that phase as a younger man, breaking into cars and causing trouble. Yet he says Russ never came down too hard on him.
“My dad was never the hardcore disciplinarian that you would think, you know? He always kept us in line, but then he was always telling us stories about when he was young, being a punk troublemaker like us. So it was kind of like, ‘Huh. I gotta fill my dad’s shoes somehow.’”
Russ plays the Revelators’ new CD back inside the bachelor pad. It’s all originals, and it has a crisp, bluesy sound. He plans to send it out to some independent rockabilly labels, hoping someone will pick it up. The album features a track on which Russ duets with Cash McCall, and the liner notes include a dedication to Ronnie Mason, Russ’ friend and bass player of twenty years, who died of a heroin overdose in 2001. The album features all the Nasset boys (including Sam’s twin, John, who now lives in Alaska) singing back-up doo-wop vocals on two songs.
“That was a really cool moment,” Nasset says of having all three of his sons working on a song together with him in the studio. “We got ’em to work it out a day before we went in and did it, which is my style, to wait until the last minute. But they recorded it, man, and I got choked up. It sounded cool, I thought.”
Russ admits that he used to imagine all three sons playing with him at some point. He still thinks about it sometimes. Will it happen, though?
“You never can tell,” he says.
Both Sam and Jimi say that they hope to still be making music when they reach their father’s age. Neither hopes to become a rock star or a celebrity—just a professional guitar player who can sit it with anyone in Austin, Texas, or a DJ/MC who’s respected by those who know good hip-hop. And as for Russ, he has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
“What am I gonna do now man, go back to school and become another unemployed college student? I have to ride it on out now. It’s too late to change. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I become a novelty. You know, ‘hire this old man’ or something. I wonder if it’s ever going to come to the point where people are telling me, ‘Man, you’re too old. We don’t want you in this club no more.’ But I know a lot of guys older than me that are still doing it, and compared to the Rolling Stones, I’m a snot-nosed punk. Course, they got a reputation to go on. I’m a regional guy.”
If youthful spirit is a key factor to musical longevity, Russ is doing alright. Asked how he’d like to be remembered some day when he dies, he responds in classic rock and roll fashion.
It’s as if the idea has never crossed his mind.
Despite all that Russ has taught his sons about music, it’s the fatherly lessons that have kept Sam and Jimi on the path in pursuit of their dreams: Be nice to people; don’t lie or steal; be straight up.
“Your basic Ten Commandments stuff,” Russ calls it.
Taking a long drag off of a cigarette at that picnic table in his front yard, Russ adds one more to the list of teachings he’s tried to impart to his sons: “Don’t act like a punk…unless you’re playing in a punk rock band.”