From Russia with love

You can’t say “pickin’ and grinnin'” in Russian.

“It’s just not possible,” Alexander “Sasha” Ostrovsky noted by phone recently.

At 22, the handsome musician has already witnessed his share of the impossible. Bering Strait, his Music City-based band, have been playing Nashville-style country and spirited bluegrass professionally since before some members were even in their teens.

But this isn’t the tale of some hotshot group of American prodigies going to the big town following a blue-ribbon performance at some rural county fair. The members of Bering Strait hail from Russia, that hotbed of bluegrass — nyet! (ever hear of the O Comrade, Where Art Thou? soundtrack?).

Since moving to the States in 1997-98, group members have surmounted their language gap (lush-voiced heartthrob-singer Natasha Borzilova, who arrived knowing no English, now speaks it better than you do). They’ve survived four failed record deals and been utterly destitute. Their violinist quit and went home.

Bering Strait is now Ostrovsky (Dobro, lap and pedal steel); Borzilova, 24 (vocals, acoustic guitar); Ilya Toshinsky, 25 (lead electric guitar, banjo, backing vocals); Alexander Arzamastsev, 29 (drums); Lydia Salnikova, 22 (keyboards, backing vocals); and Serge “Spooky” Olkhovsky, 25 (bass) — sterling players, all.

And since Universal South released the band’s eponymous debut in January, Bering Strait have been garnering heaps of attention: a Feb. 23 segment on TV’s 60 Minutes; a limited U.S. opening for the documentary The Ballad of Bering Strait, also in February; and a Grammy nomination on Jan. 6 for Best Country Song, an unprecedented event for a non-American band (they lost to the ubiquitous Dixie Chicks).

But that’s getting ahead of the story — putting the borscht, if you will, before the beet.

Class struggle

Obninsk, about 65 miles southwest of Moscow, is home to the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant; most residents have scientific or technical jobs. (Borzilova’s father, in fact, died in the early ’90s from radiation poisoning following his work leading cleanup efforts at the Chernobyl disaster site.)

Obninsk is, as Ilya notes, “culturally above the average.” It’s the kind of place where kids have always gotten better schooling, even in communist days, when the city was something of a national secret, not even listed on Russian maps. Rigorous after-school arts training has long been common there.

Ilya Toshinsky’s music teacher, Alexei Gvozdev, though teaching classical discipline, had a yen for bluegrass, a genre largely unknown in Russia before the fall of communism in 1991.

“It was a very, very new sound in Russia,” Ilya explains. “Nobody had really heard it.”

The teacher played Earl Scruggs’ version of “Cumberland Gap” for his young charge. “I was completely blown away,” says Ilya, who soon enough mastered the banjo.

Alexei then began putting together a bluegrass band made up of his best students — Sasha Ostrovsky was playing Dobro with them within a month of first picking up an improvised version of the instrument. Little by little, Bering Strait came together, though back then, they called themselves Vesyoly Dilizhans, or Merry Stagecoach.

The band became a hometown hit (“small celebrities,” as Sasha puts it), traveling extensively outside of Russia before some members were even in their teens. But they realized that true success in bluegrass — and in pop country, their budding interest — meant one thing: Nashville, Tenn., U.S.A.

In 1997, after a few initial forays to the States, the group packed it in for Music City.

“All my heroes now live in my town!” Ilya proclaims.

Teacher Alexei made the trip with them, but returned to Russia in 1998, the same year the group met Mike Kinnamon, now their manager.

This was, as Mike notes, five album deals ago.

Initially, a friend had to really twist his arm to get him to go see the band, Mike admits.

“The next thing you know, I’ve got seven Russians living in my house,” he adds with a chuckle. “When you walked in and you seen these little guys — only they’re not so little anymore — and you seen what they did, and heard what they did, there’s no way anybody in their normal mind could walk away from it.”

Mike, 53, has been manager, mother hen, friend and bank to the members of Bering Strait, two of whom still live in his house, which he’s re-mortgaged more than once just to keep them all afloat.

“Got any extra room?” he now quips.

Strait ahead

The move to the States precipitated the band’s ambitious name change: The Bering Strait is that patch of water separating Siberia and Alaska — where Mother Russia meets Uncle Sam.

But this was exactly the wrong time for overnight success in Nashville, then going through its worst slump ever. Bering Strait, recorded with producer Brent Maher in 1999, was repeatedly shelved on account of label collapses and reshufflings. In the meantime, the band was discouraged from taking gigs until the album’s release — and their visas didn’t permit standard employment.

Add to this the culture shock. For Sasha, it came first with the food.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he admits with a laugh. “It was not the best [surprise]. A lot of food that is sold here, especially vegetables, has no taste.”

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