Country group, bluegrass group
Success for the country and bluegrass band Bering Strait has been elusive, despite what many would consider the right ingredients: fresh-faced kids, excellent musicianship, and incredible dedication. The band has been on the verge of success since they arrived from, of all places, Russia in 1998. After two CD releases and a Grammy nomination for their instrumental song "Bearing Straight," the question of whether this band of Russian hopefuls will ever break into the country music elite has become as much a part of their story as their music itself.
A Long Way from Nashville
Their story began in Obninsk, Russia, a town about 60 miles southwest of Moscow. Formerly closed to any foreign visitors and not even found on Communist-era maps, Obninsk is famous for housing the world's first nuclear power station and for the many scientists who live and work there. The members of what would become the band Bering Strait all hail from this city, where they met at the city's music school.
One of the school's teachers, Alexei Gvozdev, had an interest in bluegrass music, and believed that through the study of bluegrass his students would get very good technical training. He recruited eleven-year-old Ilya Toshinsky to play banjo. Toshinsky had been studying classical guitar, but was immediately smitten with the banjo, an instrument that was a complete novelty in Russia as well as to the youngster. Soon Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky was taught to play dobro, and Natasha Borzilova added vocals and played classical guitar. Later Andrei Missikhin joined on bass and contrabass, Sergei Passov on violin and mandolin, and Alexei Arzamastsev on drums. The band was initially called Vesyoly Dilizhans, or Merry Stagecoach. Gvozdev, who had his students listen to such bluegrass artists as Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt, required that they practice ten hours a day. They began making television appearances and playing as street musicians in Moscow. By the mid-1990s they had begun to shift their music from straight bluegrass to country music. They achieved notoriety in Russia, and were earning more money than their scientist and engineer parents.
The band's direction changed in 1997 when they were playing in Moscow at the Mexican restaurant La Cantina. Ray Johnson, an American art dealer who had connections to Nashville recording executive Tim Dubois, happened to catch Bering Strait's act and was impressed by the group's talent. He arranged to fly the band to the United States, and soon they had a development deal with Sony, although it ultimately fell through. Dubois, then president of Arista, picked up the band and signed them to a multi-album deal. By this point, the band had broken their ties with Gvozdev, who wanted the band to return to Russia. The band members felt strongly that they had to remain in the United States because, as Toshinsky stated in an interview with Morley Safer for 60 Minutes, "It was obvious that there was only one place in this world where you go to become a country musician. And that is Nashville." Also driving this decision was the band's fear that if they remained in Russia they would end up playing an endless club circuit, performing for Western tourists who saw them simply as a novelty act. During this time Brent Maher, formerly the Judds' producer, recorded the band's first four songs, and Mike Kinnamon stepped in as their manager. Kinnamon, who served as the teenage musicians' father figure, actually put up the group in his own ranch home for several years. His belief in the group was unflagging, despite a series of setbacks they experienced over the next four years.
For the Record …
Members include Alexander Arzamastsev (joined group temporarily, 1989; later rejoined, 1996), drums; Natasha Borzilova (joined group, 1989), lead vocals, acoustic guitar; Andrei Missikhin (left group), bass, contrabass; Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky (joined group, 2000), bass; Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky (joined group, 1994), dobro, steel guitar, lap steel; Sergei Passov (left group, 2002), mandolin, fiddle; Lydia Salnikova (joined group, 1994), keyboards, vocals; Ilya Toshinsky (formed bluegrass group, 1988; left group, 2004), lead electric guitar, banjo, vocals.
Group formed in Obninsk, Russia, 1988; band arrived in United States, 1996; had unsuccessful contracts with Sony Nashville, Arista Nashville, Gaylord Entertainment, and MCA Nashville, 1997–2002; signed with Universal South, 2002; released debut album, Bering Strait, 2003; documentary The Ballad of Bering Strait opened, 2003; released second album, Pages, 2005.
Addresses: Management—Music Central Management/JMK Music, Mike Kinnamon, 118 16th Ave. South, Ste. 208, Nashville, TN 37203. Website—Bering Strait Official Website: http://www.beringstraitonline.com.
Are We There Yet?
The road to fame was filled with obstructions for the Russian teens. Although they seemed to be on the fast track to success with the Arista contract, they soon became pawns in a corporate shakeup that ended their affiliation with Arista. Dubois moved to the startup label Gaylord and brought Bering Strait with him, but this arrangement ended when Gaylord folded. As the band got mired in the dealings of the Nashville industry and yet another failed contract, their financial situation grew bleaker. Manager Kinnamon, nearly bankrupted by his efforts to support the band, still held out hope for a solid contract. That contract came in 2002 when Dubois and former MCA Nashville president Tony Brown teamed to head the new label Universal South. From July of 1999 until the summer of 2001, documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey chronicled the band's trials and tribulations in the 90-minute film The Ballad of Bering Strait. The movie debuted in February of 2003, just a month after the band's self-titled CD debut on Universal South Records. In addition to the media buzz created by the movie, the band received a great deal of press, including spots on 60 Minutes, NPR's Morning Edition, and a profile in the New York Times, and they received a Grammy nomination for their song "Bearing Straight" in the Best Country Instrumental category. The Russian band was up against such vanguard names as the Dixie Chicks, Bela Fleck, the Chieftains with Earl Scruggs, and hot newcomers Nickel Creek.
Most critics focused on the band's remarkable story over what most considered the overall flat quality of Bering Strait's carefully produced songs. Washington Post critic Desson Howe remarked, "Bering Strait's music is a little cutesy, like the music you'd expect from, say, the Country Bears or some amusement park attraction. It's too dead-on perfect, a cloned, bland tribute to the songs they love." While the band had worked diligently to craft an authentic country sound, and technically had achieved this standard, the songs that earned the most praise were the bluegrass instrumental "Bearing Straight" and "Porushka-Paranya," the band's foot-stomping rendition of a traditional Russian piece sung in their native language. Washington Post correspondent David Segal summed up the band's shortcoming: "What's the point of hailing from Moscow if you can't let your inner Russki out? Bering Strait could well move beyond novelty act status, but to do so the group needs to bridge continents, as its name promises, rather than just prove it can leave one and convincingly settle in another."
Released in 2005, Pages, Bering Strait's sophomore album, was produced by bluegrass instrumentalists Carl Jackson and Jerry Douglas. Although founding member Toshinsky appears on the CD, he left the band in 2004 to pursue his interests in producing. Pages, generally viewed as a more adventurous album than Bering Strait, includes instrumental bluegrass tracks, a Russian folk song, a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Lovin' Fun," and a collection of pop-rock, jazz-influenced songs. It seemed the band had found its sound with this second album, although it still defied classification. Dallas Morning News critic Mario Tarradell applauded Pages as a daring effort that "eschews the more commercially savvy sound of its impressive self-titled 2003 debut disc," and declared that Pages is "filled with top-notch musicianship, beautiful voices and proof that genres and boundaries don't mean a thing when true talent is at work."
Bering Strait, Universal South, 2003.
Pages, Universal South, 2005.
Dallas Morning News, February 21, 2003; July 3, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2003.
Miami Herald, July 5, 2005.
New York Daily News, February 18, 2003.
New York Times, January 6, 2003; February 19, 2003.
Russian Life, September/October 2000.
Village Voice, February 19-25, 2003.
Washington Post, May 5, 2002; February 28, 2003.
"Bering Strait," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 5, 2005).
"Bering Strait," CMT, http://www.cmt.com (October 5, 2005).
Bering Strait Official Website, http://beringstraitonline.com/site.html (October 5, 2005).
"It's Country Music from Russia," CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com (October 5, 2005).
"Moscow in the Meantime," Slate, http://www.slate.com (October 14, 2005).
"Russian Band's Bluegrass Roots," CNN, http://www.cnn.com (October 5, 2005).