Honky-Tonk bandleader and gritty folk guitarist Russ Nasset wasn’t much for hospitals until he visited for brain surgery earlier this year: “By the time they checked me out I didn’t want to leave. Got a pretty girl coming in every hour ask you if you need anything…watching cable TV, drinking ice water, room service. Never did get a sponge bath though. Life can’t be perfect.
Russ Nasset is the real deal, a guitar player and singer who’s made a life of the music business. “My dad is about as much of an original gangster as Missoula has ever seen,” wrote Russ’ son and hip-hop MC Jimi Nasset in a recent e-mail. “I am sure just about everybody in town has danced to one of his bands over the years.” Ednor Therriault of Bob Wire and the Magnificent Bastards dubbed Russ Nasset “The Godfather of Missoula Honky-Tonk” not long ago, and Tom Catmull says of Nasset, “For me, he’s the one in town.” So Missoula’s musicians took notice when Nasset—leader of honky-tonk band Russ Nasset and the Revelators as well as a solo performer—fell ill late last year.
It began Christmas morning when Nasset had a stroke. After about five minutes with no feeling on his right side the symptoms faded, and Nasset resumed his routine without seeking treatment, playing two gigs over the ensuing six days. Then, on December 30, the symptoms recurred. This time he called his son and Revelators bandmate Sam Nasset to take him to the emergency room, where doctors discovered and repaired a heart defect through a relatively noninvasive procedure.
“That was scary,” says Russ, who adds he “could count on one hand” the number of times he’s been to a doctor.
At the same visit, Nasset underwent a CAT scan, which revealed an aneurysm in his brain. During the time between his discharge following heart surgery and visiting local neurosurgeon Carter Beck, Nasset went back to gigging once more. But in mid-January, when he saw Beck, he learned the aneurysm—a bulge in a blood vessel caused by a weakening of the vessel’s wall—was serious. Surgery was scheduled for when Nasset would be fully recovered from the heart operation.
“The hard part about it for me,” says Nasset, “was waiting. It was this fucking time bomb in my head for about six weeks.”
Nasset, 57, has never really done anything for a living aside from playing music. Raised in Shelby, he moved to Oregon in the late 1960s after a stint in Missoula at the University of Montana. Although, he says, he always wanted to play music publicly, shyness kept him from performing when he first lived in Montana.
“When I was up here,” says Nasset, “I just didn’t have the balls to get started, [but] I’d always wanted to do that my whole life so I finally did it.”
One of Nasset’s first attempts was when he and his brother busked at what’s now called the Oregon Country Fair, a yearly carnival taking place outside Eugene.
“We put a beat-up old hat out and collected about 30, 40 bucks, a couple of food stamps and a couple of joints. That was a big day, man…Once I did it, it kind of broke the ice, then I was cool after that.”
For those who know Nasset’s gritty folk and rowdy honky-tonk music, the image of him strumming a guitar as flower power bloomed around him might seem somewhat incongruous, and Nasset admits he never quite fit with the beatniks and peaceniks of those times.
“When it all first happened,” he says, “I went along with the so-called hippie movement…but I wasn’t really a hippie. I grew my hair long but I was just a kid from Montana.”
He was a kid who could play guitar and sing. As such, Nasset quickly was asked to join an established touring group based in Eugene and Corvallis, which meant he never spent time working his way up through garage bands. Instead, Nasset contributed his own country sound to a traveling blues and roots rock group, the Ramblin’ Rex Trio, and started his career in professional music.
At the time, he says it was easier to make a living from playing music, coming into a town for five or six nights and then moving on to another. “You could stay as long as you want in those days but it ain’t like that no more,” says Nasset, “About 15 years ago there was an explosion of bands who’ll play one-nighters for no guarantees.”
Sometime before that garage-band explosion, after a decade and a half in Oregon, Nasset moved back to Missoula with his now ex-wife and their three boys. Nasset moved on the promise of steady work at a bar in East Missoula, but it burned down before he got here. Still, he landed a three-nights-a-week gig at the Lumberjack, a backwoods bar located west of Lolo, eventually bringing his rhythm section from Oregon to join him.
When those bandmates “kicked the bucket on me,” he says he spent the next decade and a half keeping together a lineup now touring as Russ Nasset and the Revelators. In addition, Nasset also resumed solo shows, most prominently with a steady every-other-Thursday-night show at the Old Post Pub that he hopes to resume soon.
Even when Nasset resumes that gig, and his regular lifestyle, he knows not everything will be the same. He doesn’t plan to give up beer—“can’t quit everything, you know”—although he has kicked a ferocious cigarette habit. “I haven’t had a whole cigarette since December 30 on the way to the emergency room,” he says. “Before Sam would let me get in his truck, I’m taking the last couple hits and he says, ‘Throw that fucking thing away and get in here or I’m going without you.’”
He adds: “I was really lucky because if I wouldn’t have had a stroke, I wouldn’t have known about the aneurysm. Nobody goes and gets a CAT scan just for the hell of it. And the stroke itself happened to hit me in a spot that didn’t leave no damage behind. I could have been paralyzed…I didn’t even lose any speech or eyesight or motor skills.”
Nasset, who doesn’t have health insurance, is left with some big medical bills but he’s quick to downplay them, saying the hospital and his doctors are accommodating. And while he hasn’t been working, Nasset has savings from last summer and a group of local musicians have organized a benefit on his behalf to help with other expenses.
“When [organizers] first told me they were going to do it, I was like I can’t show up for my own benefit.” With typical guilelessness, he adds, “In a way, it’s a little bit embarrassing—no, not embarrassing. I’m very honored that people want to help me.”
Clearly, though, Nasset would most like to be out helping himself. “I’m getting antsy sitting around this house, I’m tellin’ ya…Got to keep hustlin’ you know. I’ll go anywhere I can get a gig.”
Roots Rock Round-Up: A Benefit for Russ Nasset, featuring music from Bob Wire and the Magnificent Bastards, Broken Valley Roadshow, Tom Catmull and the Clerics and Swillbillys, takes place Friday, March 30, at the Elk’s Lodge. 8 PM. $10.