Russ Wilson is one of the busiest musicians in Western North Carolina. Leading or playing in no fewer than nine bands, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has still found time to compile an album of songs that showcase the breadth of his musical vision. And, for the sixth year in a row, he’s hosting an evening of holiday classics: Have Yourself a Swingin’ Little Christmas happens Sunday, Dec. 22, at Isis Music Hall.
Wilson was born in the mid-1960s, and his musical journey took him in a direction very different from that of most of his contemporaries. “When everyone else was listening to DEVO and Blondie, I was listening to Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa,” Wilson says. “And it’s all because of my dad.”
Wilson’s father didn’t have any special musical talent. “He always joked that he could barely play the radio,” the bandleader says. But the Wilson patriarch was a voracious reader and took a great interest in the vinyl boxed sets put together by Reader’s Digest. Two of those collections would make an indelible impression on young Wilson. “One was called The Great Band Era, 1936-45,” he recalls. “And another one, which I still listen to, is called In the Groove with the Kings of Swing.” The latter inspired the name of Wilson’s popular radio show, “In the Groove with Russ Wilson,” on WPVM-FM.
“Through my dad, I also got into Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and just whatever was laying around the house,” Wilson explains. “And when I was old enough to be let out of the house by myself, I’d hang out at the public library on Saturday afternoons, checking out records. And it just stuck.”
Today, Wilson appears live four or five nights a week, singing and/or playing with groups led by him or other longtime associates. Those groups take on a wide array of styles, from big band swing and jump blues to prewar hot jazz and early rock ’n’ roll.
And that wide-encompassing approach to American musical forms is condensed — like the stories in his father’s favorite Reader’s Digest — on Wilson’s latest album, It’s All About Me. Across 14 tracks (some recorded decades ago), the album is a tidy survey of Wilson’s musical world. Featured variously as a singer, musician and conductor, Wilson works his way through up-tempo proto-rock (“7 Nights to Rock”), doo-wop (“I Only Have Eyes for You”), vocal jazz (“Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”) and even Southern gospel (“Headin’ Home”).
That last track is one that Wilson recorded himself in the 1990s using a pair of cassette decks. Playing guitar and overdubbing his voice multiple times (and crediting the track to “Russ Wilson’s Harmonizing 4”), the recording makes the point that he can do it all.
But, on most of the album’s tracks (and for live performances), Wilson draws upon the deep well of musical talent in and around Asheville. The album features recordings by The John Henrys, Firecracker Jazz Band, The Russ Wilson Swingtette and more. In his liner notes for It’s All About Me, Wilson makes it clear that the album title is meant half in jest: “Without these people in my musical life, there is no ‘ME,’” he writes.
And some of those people will be joining Wilson as he takes the stage for this year’s Christmas concert. Frequent collaborators Wendy Jones (vocals), guitarist Hank Bones and pianist Richard Shulman are part of an 18-piece big band — “four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, piano, bass, guitar, drums and me,” Wilson says — for an evening of songs and sentimentality.
“We’ve got a few new arrangements that we’re bringing in, but we’re going to play all the old favorites,” Wilson says. “Wendy has a big band arrangement of ‘White Christmas.’ And last year we started doing ‘Silent Night.’” For that number, Wilson stands at the edge of the stage as the house lights are brought up just a bit. And the audience joins in.
“You’d be amazed how many good singers are out in the audience; you start hearing spontaneous harmony parts,” Wilson says, smiling at the thought.
“It’s like every one of those Bing Crosby and Perry Como Christmas shows you saw,” he continues. His dad would have been proud.
WHO: Russ Wilson’s Have Yourself a Swingin’ Little Christmas
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 22, at 7:30 p.m. $15