+ By Leigh Glenn + Photos by Allison Zaucha
The first time Russell Stone heard The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he couldn’t stop laughing. Perhaps he could not believe his ears. Stone’s fellow musicians attribute a quality similar to Hendrix to his playing, though clearly he is not Hendrix and would never claim to be. “Unique,” his friends say, “unusual,” “his solos are ridiculous,” and “no one else like him.”
With the palate of an oenophile and a day job helping people pair wine and food, one might only guess at Stone’s abilities, unless you happened to hear a band he plays with—OC/DC, the Jello Boys, or the Monuments. His long fingers aren’t necessarily a clue, nor is his mind, which moves easily between Russian history, music trivia, reincarnation, and myriad other subjects. During his covers of Steely Dan or Beatles songs, you might pick up a thread of sitarist Ravi Shankar or keyboardist Bernie Worrell, both late, greats of their genres. Stone seems to channel—in his own way—the lineage of folk-blues-rock-funk and everything they grew out of and evolved into.
Stone is the oldest in a four-sibling family that includes painter Matthew, guitarist Jonathan, and actress Megan. Jonathan says that they all got the “unconventional gene” from their father, a US Marine who taught himself carpentry. Their mother, a commercial graphic artist, moved the family in 1968 from the Berkshire foothills of Connecticut to Annapolis and worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
His first instrument was a Gibson guitar, which his paternal grandfather bought because he enjoyed his daughter-in-law’s playing and singing. Over time, every child in the family played the instrument. Stone, who says he grew up in the parentally permissive “Dr. Spock” era, went to the movies and watched A Hard Days Night and Help again and again to understand what the Beatles were doing and began teasing those things out. He spent hours a day with the guitar, teaching himself.
Despite all of his rock chops, Stone can’t be that guy who draws the crowds and plays loudly. “It’s just how I’m constituted,” he explains. But friend and Jello Boys guitarist Steve Badger says that, with one note, Stone can make a person laugh or cry.
On stage with OC/DC on a cold January night at Stan & Joe’s South in Edgewater, Stone occasionally turns his back to the audience to play. He jokes to the crowd that it’s “British invasion sports night,” as the band is competing with the Eagles-Falcons football game as well as college basketball and football. But everyone is supportive and enthusiastic as Stone, A.J. Eckert (keyboard, guitar, and vocals), longtime friend Shep Tullier (bass and vocals), and Mickey Eckman (drums) dance back and forth across the Atlantic, starting stateside with Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” then moving to the Beatle’s “You Can’t Do That.” On the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” Stone sings and plays loosely yet is controlled before they transition to something bluesy and then to Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough,” before taking a break.
What comes across is someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Stone says the guitar is a great spiritual barometer of whatever energies and influences are on the player’s side at any given moment, so the player approaches the instrument differently every time. That sensibility would probably conflict with a life on the road, having to play constantly and consistently, so Stone is glad he doesn’t make a living at music—though he has great respect for those who do.
“I’ve never played with [Stone] where he’s repeated the same thing twice,” says blues guitarist Dean Rosenthal, who was maybe in junior high school when he first heard Stone play with Dirty Jane. “He’s very experimental in the way he comes at it—sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but it’s never stopped him.” For example, they could be playing a simple Willie Nelson song, and Stone will throw in a complex lick that reminds Rosenthal of Jeff Beck.
Stone says he’ll play any note any time, even if it means traversing an Arabian scale in a Muddy Waters tune. Occasionally, that approach has provided in-the-moment annoyance. Rosenthal recalls a gig during which Stone’s playing bothered him. When they listened to a recording of the gig on the ride home, Rosenthal shifted his view: “Goddamn, that’s good,” he said, “I had to go back and apologize—‘That’s brilliant. Sorry I was so much on your case.’”
Rosenthal also hears in Stone Adrian Belew and other guitarists who have their own way of doing things. “I don’t know how he hears what he hears. You realize that, when you take him in the band, he’ll push things further than you thought they were going to go,” says Rosenthal. Badger agrees: “[Stone] raises everybody up with his playing, encourages you to do more, find more, make the music happen.” He notes that Stone is always learning more about the art, science, and magic of music.
Badger says that Stone has an ability to make the guitar sound like other instruments—flute, oboe, cello, keyboards, marimba, or clavinet. “He has got it tuned to the key of Russell,” he says. But Stone doesn’t want his friend’s comment taken too literally. “By accident or by intent,” he explains, “different tonality happens,” and it may be that, to someone’s ears, it resembles another instrument.
Elusive in nature, Stone doesn’t like digital anything but doesn’t want to be seen as a Luddite. He also didn’t want Rosenthal and others to organize the concert that took place in August 2017 to celebrate his own musicianship. Luthier and musician Paul Reed Smith says he was amazed, during a rehearsal, to see Stone grab paper and a marker and begin writing down the chords for the complex Steely Dan tune, “Haitian Divorce” without reaching for his guitar. “He is fundamentally a musician, which is different than a guitar player,” says Smith. “I’ve never seen Russell be hoodwinked by any piece of music.”
After overcoming some health issues, Stone is playing out more and working on his own compositions. He’s gearing up for studio time, and is considering writing a memoir whose working title is Garage Band, if he can find an Olivetti to type it on. He likens his reflective compositions to “the funny stepchild you don’t want the neighbors to see.” But it’s unlikely that Stone’s fans would care how funny that stepchild is. They, too, want to hear what Stone hears, and see what Stone sees. █