Nashville Dreams is an album about misadventure. It’s written from the perspective of Dick Stusso, an urbanite who’s so besotted with the thought of Nashville—imagined as a place where rural idyll and industry machinery coexist—that he seeks it out, weathering plenty of indignities on the highway. Of course, fantasies prove elusive. And it doesn’t end well. Stusso winds up dead or drunk, drowning the dream.
Dick Stusso is something of an avatar for Nic Russo, who plays every instrument on the album and articulates the intrepid character’s frenzied excitement and crestfallen fate quite convincingly. Russo is a longtime home recordist, but Nashville Dreams—packaged with a less conceptually uniform group of songs called Sings the Blues—is his first album, recently released via Vacant Stare. Soft-spoken and reserved, Russo arrives for a recent interview wearing a fleece-lined windbreaker and an enamel pin. Its peppy script reads, Bullshit.
“What I’d feel comfortable with people knowing about where the record came from is, well, getting really acquainted with failure,” he says. Russo, 29, is a Bay Area native. He lives in Oakland and cuts down trees for a living in neighboring Contra Costa County. His father, Marc Russo, performs with the Doobie Brothers. “I haven’t told him about the album,” Russo says. “I mean, what I have is basically about being drunk and unsuccessful in 2015.”
Russo views the album through its circumstances: a debut tape released on the eve of a songwriter’s twenties, recorded at home on whatever failing gear survived the drunken rage that ended the previous session. And yet, it’s a home-recording coup—so smothered in gauzy static that the virtues of proper mixing pale next to the merits of console abuse—and a blistering debut in terms of songwriting, rife much more emotional texture and creative contours than Russo allows.
There are bleary ballads featuring teardrop twang and waterlogged laments, sumptuous boogie in the style of T. Rex, and recording mishaps cleverly emphasized for dramatic effect. “A Tale of Two Dickens” is a madcap romp, enlivened by Russo’s chattering, amphetamine delivery; on “Heart of the Country” he supplely yearns for the highway, intimating motion with a drum machine and bass’ seductive ghost of a groove. Meanwhile, “The Ballad of Dicky Stusso” is a piano paean to the main character. It’s the only song to address Stusso in third-person and past tense: Too bad, too bad he had rock ‘n roll dreams, Russo sings. Too bad he had schizophrenia in his genes.
Russo grew up in an East Bay suburb and studied political science at San Francisco State University, though he pegs alcoholism and depression as his academic focus. After a misguided New York excursion, he settled in Oakland five years ago and shortly thereafter moved in with his girlfriend, Grace Cooper of The Sandwitches. She bought him an upright piano, which lives near the Tascam Portastudio in their one-bedroom apartment.
“At home, I’ve always fallen into the mode of writing very serious, depressing songs,” Russo says. He never performed live. Self-defeat precluded self-promotion. He says he aspired to a “shittier Guided by Voices, maybe,” uploading songs to Soundcloud, but mostly for reference. “I have some nihilistic tendencies,” he says. “I don’t even get to the point of putting myself out there for consideration.”
And yet, an old acquaintance from high school named Rob Miller inquired after more material. He’d established a label, Vacant Stare, to self-release an EP by his own group, Mall Walk, and wanted to expand the catalog. Miller slowly persuaded Russo to write material in the context of an album, a first. He’d grown accustomed to showing vulnerability, assuming the work was mostly private. As a public veil, he invented Dick Stusso. “Dick Stusso is basically a caricature of myself,” he says. “Real emotions, but presented in a way that people can maybe laugh at.”
Russo says the newfound attention is pretty manageable. Blogs picked up the album, but ours is his first in-person interview. He’s assembled a group for a spate of performances, but not a tour to speak of. As for Stusso, Nashville Dreams’ closing-track recycles “The Ballad of Dicky Stusso”, except it’s pitched down, lending the impression of the singer contentedly reprising his song in haggard, old age. And the title-track finds Stusso doubting the veracity of his fantasy. He sounds radiant nonetheless, inhabiting the dream at least for the length of a song.