Russell, Cooper keep crossing paths

Published July 30, 2004 - Galveston Daily News

GALVESTON — When Shake Russell and Dana Cooper formed their band in the late 1970s, critics said it was a vocal match made in heaven.

With Russell’s deep intonation and Cooper’s higher harmony laid over top, the singers soon found themselves packing now defunct Houston coffeehouses and clubs such as Steamboat Springs. Major record label executives perked up their ears.

Yet some fans may not know that their paths crossed a decade earlier, in their senior year of high school in Kansas City. Russell had been a trombone player in the school band, but gravitated to bass guitar, sticking with the bass scale notes he was used to. He went across town to Cooper’s school — St. Mary’s High — for a Christmas assembly with his psychedelic rock band.

They hit it off when they met that night, their mutual interest in artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens and James Taylor bubbling to the surface. Still, like the name of the Missouri town in which they both were born — Independence — they went their separate ways, with Cooper ending up in California and releasing his debut self-titled album in 1973. Russell gravitated to Texas.

After Russell went to San Francisco to write some songs with Cooper when his record deal went sour, he convinced him to come to Houston where the Shake Russell/Dana Cooper Band debut album, “Songs on the Radio,” was released in 1978, leading to a major label deal in 1980.

“Individually, we were on these different paths and covered a whole spectrum of music as solo artists, but when we met up we were able to put songs down together easily,” Russell said. “It’s not just the low voice and high voice thing that works. It’s just something that we don’t have to work at very hard. It’s corny to say he’s like my brother, but it seems that way.”

When their self-titled major label debut was released in 1981 on Southwest, an Austin affiliate of MCA, Russell and Cooper saw their name shoot up the Billboard charts, based on skyrocketing sales in Texas alone.

Yet problems with the record company, and their dogged independent streak, led to another split after they bought out their contract. This time, Cooper moved to Nashville — where he lives today — and found a market filled with other artists who wanted to record his songs. Likewise, Russell, who became a fixture on the main stage of the Kerrville Folk Festival, found a very lucrative deal with country star Clint Black, who recorded several Russell songs in the 1990s that became chart-topping country hits, notably “Put Yourself in My Shoes” and “One More Payment.”

But after collaborating on a 1993 album project with Houston songwriter Jack Saunders, the duo hooked up again for more song writing sessions, then some touring prior to the release of “At Love’s Bright Campaign” in 1998. The album, with its blended Everly Brothers-style harmonies and picturesque lyrics that buried themselves deeply into fans’ souls created such a demand for their reunion concerts that they went back on the road, and have been performing ever since.

“The audiences seem to keep coming back to hear us 30 years later and we’re grateful for the support,” said Russell, who has lived in Austin the past five years and was named the 2004 MyTexasMusic Entertainer of the Year. “It kind of defies the logic that if you stay in one spot too long you’ll burn out. We’ve been in sync for so long, we probably even make mistakes at the same time.”

While Russell plans to continue work on his new solo record — his 2003 divorce created a flood of lyrics that he says was better than seeing a therapist — Russell and Cooper are putting the finishing production touches on a new live album to be released by year’s end.

Tentatively titled “Island Night” — and Russell quickly points out it is not a Jimmy Buffett tribute disc — the CD was recorded in December 2003 at a studio in Port Aransas set up like a concert with 100 fans in attendance.

“We recorded about 35 songs, and we have it whittled down to 17, we just have to chop a couple more,” he said.

Russell said that small-room setting seems to work best for the duo, whether doing regular gigs at house concerts, Galveston’s Old Quarter Acoustic Café or Houston’s Mucky Duck.

“It’s more intimate and not like the old days when you would do a sound check, play and leave,” he said. “We sit around talking with folks about how we make our records. It’s a really good exchange with fans.”