Stirring your very soul, sending flutters through your heart and shivers down your spine, the voice of Alma Russ makes an immediate and lasting impact upon exposure as it passes over you, prickling your pores like the first warm breeze of spring carrying naturally therapeutic aromas pleasing of the senses and evocative of fond memories, and leaving one viciously yearning for its presence once again after it passes.
Originally from a farm in interior Florida, but forged in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, Alma Russ is every bit authentic if nothing else. Proficient on fiddle, guitar, clawhammer banjo, and also with a songwriter’s pen, she was raised on the histories of mountain culture in written, oral, and sung traditions, from maudlin sonnets to murder ballads and everything in between, understanding where the music had been before before embarking on where she might be able to take it.
Offering up eight jewels along with an old traditional under the heading of Fool’s Gold, Alma Russ recorded this album far away from the lush slopes of North Carolina somewhere in the Chihuahuan Desert of south Texas in an old church with producer Bill Palmer. Sparse in moments perhaps, but not miserly with the steel guitar or vocal signal, the album is every bit reminiscent of the origins of country music and old-time folk, while also feeling young, alive, and fresh, facilitated by Alma’s spirited delivery and emotive passion indicative in her voice.
The sound might be distinctly of Appalachia, but the characters and setting are much more far flung, facilitated by young Alma Russ’s restless wanderings through Texas and out West among other places, running into characters and experiences begging to be memorialized in song. She even made it onto (gulp!) American Idol for a moment. But of course that didn’t last too long. That’s how you know she’s good.
Whether offered as a compliment or levied as an accusation, Alma Russ’s voice inevitably draws comparisons to singing titans such as Dolly Parton, Stevie Nicks, Alison Krauss, and Jewel. Of course, comparisons to singers in this class should really only be considered positive. The singing style she’s crafted is Alma’s most identifiable asset. But perhaps as such an expressive singer, it can be a little too rich for some.
The sound of Alma Russ is less an attempt at impersonation, and more an amalgam of many great singers of country and roots interwoven into an original approach bursting out with confidence, then descending into a whispered hush, and emphasized by a little yodeling warble employed just at the right times to endear a critical lyric to the ear.
But as Fool’s Gold verifies, Alma Russ is a five tool performer. Along with her singing and the adroitness she brings to three separate stringed mediums, it would be scandalous to overlook the songwriting and character development she expresses in songs like “In Another State” or “Bad Mamma Jamma.” She might be able to sing the phone book, but her writing is anything but ordinary or peripheral.
A touring musician who’s also collaborated in the studio and on stage with the works of others, Alma Russ has the stuff to be considered a serious contributor to the country music roots resurgence sweeping the independent side of the music emanating from Appalachia and elsewhere, and Fool’s Gold is fair to characterize as one of the best albums to be released in 2022 so far.