CARLSBAD — Over the years, some rock 'n' rollers have traded in their ducktails and Beatle boots for cowboy hats and riding spurs.
Some, like Roy Orbison, went country because they felt they had grown too old to shake, rattle and roll. Others, like Rick Nelson and Tom Jones, were forced to do so by their record companies.
Philip Russell made the switch from rock to country a year and a half ago, but not because of age or music industry politics.
Russell, you see, is only 19 years old. He has yet to cut his first record. The reason he gave up a promising career as a heavy metal guitarist and began playing old Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams Sr. tunes in gritty East County honky-tonks is not complicated at all:
He wanted to.
"What really turned me off to rock 'n' roll was the satanic influence in heavy metal," said Russell, who at the age of 11 formed San Diego County's only preteen rock band, Shampoo.
"I'm not saying I'm religious, but that just isn't for me. Country is a lot more wholesome and pure, and I've always liked it, even as a kid.
"But out here, you have to be into rock 'n' roll or you aren't cool. So throughout junior and senior high school, I continued playing songs by Rush, Judas Priest and Cheap Trick with several different rock bands."
Russell's moment of truth came during the summer of 1985, when he spent two months with his mother in Kentucky and his uncle in Oklahoma.
"For the first time in my life, I saw kids my own age listening to country music," he said. "And somehow, I got the feeling that that was where I should be."
On his return to Carlsbad, his home town, Russell began buying country records. Several times each month, he would sneak into local country-Western bars to listen--and to learn.
Russell taught himself so well that for the past few months he has been a regular guest artist at the Pomerado Club in Poway, Leo's Little Bit of Country in San Marcos, and the Rusty Spur in Oceanside, which is owned by another uncle. He'll be with a new band at Leo's from Thursday through Sunday and April 23-26.
The moment he is announced, he confidently jumps on stage then, in a clear, strong baritone, sings half a dozen traditional country classics like Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," Ernest Tubbs' "I'm Walkin' the Floor Over You," Lefty Frizzell's "Please Release Me" and Merle Haggard's "All in the Movies."
"I prefer the old songs to the new ones you hear on the radio," Russell said. "They have a lot more feeling and a lot more emotion.
"Back in the 1940s and '50s, country wasn't nearly as competitive as it is today. You didn't need to be a really hot singer to impress people and get them to like you.
"All you had to do was sing about things people could relate to. And even today, these down-to-earth songs about love and cheating and broken hearts are the ones that touch people the most."
Lately, Russell has been adding a few original tunes to his nightclub repertoire. These include "You're the Best Dad," a sentimental ballad dedicated to his father--who is always in the audience whenever his son performs--and "I'm Coming Home," an up-tempo rocker about a truck driver who has just finished a lonely cross-country drive and can't wait to see his family.
Russell dropped out of college after his first year and is now working full-time in the meat department of the Carlsbad Safeway store.
But each night, he said, he dreams of the day when he's able to quit his job and concentrate full time on being a singer, guitarist and songwriter.
"What I really want right now is a record label so I can record some of my own songs," Russell said. "But I'm patient. I realize I still have a long way to go, and every day I learn something new by listening to more records or going out to the clubs."