Over the holidays, Sean Russell of Fort Worth’s Cut Throat Finches released a five-track gospel EP dedicated to “Brother Bill” Russell, no relation, who was the pastor at the Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County for 27 years. Russell describes Brother Bill, who died in 2012, as “kind of an old school fire-and-brimstone preacher.”
“He was just a great guy,” says Russell, who became friends with the pastor through volunteer work. “A lot of people didn’t appreciate having to listen to him preach and were rude, but he would always stand in line at the shelter, shake peoples’ hands and tell them he loved them; he was going to take care of them.”
Russell met Brother Bill after losing his job in 2007. In his free time, he began attending his fiery sermons and serving food at the Union Gospel Mission in Fort Worth. The pastor’s influence led him to revisit the classic gospel standards, which he found compelling because of their themes of hardship. He embarked on writing his first gospel EP, named for Brother Bill, shortly after the pastor died.
Russell isn’t the only one who has immortalized the pastor. Fort Worth author and art dealer Ron Hall, also a friend to Brother Bill, described him as “kind of Santa Claus figure” in his 2006 memoir Same Kind of Different as Me. The book — which centers on Hall’s unlikely friendship with former sharecropper and homeless person Denver Moore — is now a film starring Greg Kinnear and Djimon Hounsou, which will be released Oct. 20.
Russell began writing Brother Bill without a clear idea of where it would go. Neither he nor the musicians he assembled for the project had any significant experience in gospel music, and they wrote music spanning several styles. The classic hymn “Amazing Grace” is rewritten into an airy, electric piano-led ballad in the vein of Elton John, whereas opener “Ain’t No Grave” is an exercise in roots rock. Russell admits that the album’s eclectic sound made him reluctant to seek its release.
“My own judgment of Christian music is that if doesn’t come from Nashville and isn’t easy to sing along to, there’s just no interest in it,” Russell says. “There’s a narrow view of the music, and there’s no support for people doing the music in an interesting way that supports songwriters.”
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On the EP, he lists Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Ryan Bingham among his songwriting influences. He says he values their soul-baring lyricism versus the lighthearted balladry of popular gospel music recorded in Nashville.
“That’s what I call high-five Jesus music, whereas I relate more to valley music, like the Staple Singers, when you’re not in a good way,” Russell says. “As a musician, to be able to relate to someone in a tough situation and take comfort is its own reward.”
Russell wrote the original songs on the EP, such as the closer “Hallelujah,” as a cathartic exercise, but held reservations about an official release, fearing that his audience would perceive the record as an attempt to impose his faith. His fears were somewhat allayed after playing the song “Tonight,” a meditation on addiction and recovery, for the people of the shelter he had served as a volunteer.
“I was worried about [them saying], ‘Oh, this guy is trying to cheer us up and he has all this stuff going,’” Russell says, “and they immediately connected to it.”