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Sweet Success: Hard work pays off for Angie Russell
Remember that kid from Coalmont? Shakamak graduate just landed a songwriting contract with a major music company

By Mark Bennett
Tribune-Star

Bob Burris had no idea his daughter could sing.

Yet, there was Angie, just a second-grader, walking up to the microphone alone at the school Christmas program. And then he heard her voice. Sitting with his wife Beverly amid all the other parents, Bob was stunned.

"I was just blown away," he recalls. "She just absolutely stole the show with that voice of hers."
Music had entered Angie's life for good.

Last week, that musical life got really good. That sweet-voiced girl from Coalmont is now a fortysomething songwriter in Nashville, Tenn. And Angie Russell, her name now, just signed a contract with the successful publishing company Corlew Music Group.

"It's everything I've ever dreamed of," Russell says of the deal. "This is where the big dogs play. I'm so excited, I haven't slept for two days."

That's understandable. Corlew is a hot Nashville talent source, freshly re-launched by former Academy of Country Music President David Corlew. Already, its stable of songwriters has produced the current No. 1 hit on the country charts - "Something To Be Proud Of" by Montgomery Gentry - as well as tunes on the latest albums by country stars Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley and Craig Morgan. When "Something To Be Proud Of" reached No. 1, Corlew said in a news release that also announced Russell's signing, "Keep on the lookout, we have plenty more songs where those came from."

And Russell may be the source of those future hits.

When she learned Corlew was looking for another songwriter, Russell sent him CDs of two of her songs, performed by singer Joanna Cotten. He listened to them in his car. Corlew reacted almost like Bob Burris did at Angie's second-grade solo.

"He said, 'I had to pull off the road when I heard "Keep My Faith" and "I'll Be The Wind.'' And he said, "We've got to talk,"" Russell says of their first conversation.

Stars on 'Cowboy Bob'

Landing that songwriting contract was no overnight success story. Her music career began soon after that Christmas program back in Coalmont. Angie and her sisters Kim and Carrie, and their multitalented brother Joe, formed an act called The Burris Family. "I was the short, little blonde," Angie says.

Their musical ability, Bob insists, comes from Beverly, who can "hit a high C that'll make the windows rattle." She still gives piano and singing lessons in Dugger, where they run Flowers and Gifts By Burris and Ward, a shop on Indiana 54. They've been in the flower business since 1977.
Their venture into the music business, which began years earlier, grew from humble seeds, too. Son Joe, who died in 1995, was just 5 when a Hank Williams TV show inspired him to tell his parents, "That's what I want to be," Bob recalls.

So Beverly bought Joe a guitar, he taught himself to play, and eventually the four kids were singing and playing instruments together. Beverly called WTTV Channel 4 in Indianapolis to see if they could audition for the "Cowboy Bob Show," a children's variety program. The station agreed. But the auditions were at a bar near an Indy shopping area.

Somehow, they made it inside to perform, backed by the house band. And Angie, just 9 years old, was supposed to sing "Daddy Was An Old-Time Preacher Man."

"But she said, 'Daddy, I can't sing a religious song in a beer joint,'" Bob remembers. "So she did 'Rocky Top.' And she just carried it off like she made the song herself."

The Burris Family became regulars on the "Cowboy Bob Show" and fixtures on another popular Channel 4 program "They K.Y. Curley Show." They'd continued to play summer festivals and fairs around Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. "We played for a lot of camper people," Bob says.

Angie went on to Shakamak High School and graduated in 1978. By 22, she got a record development deal with Electra Asylum Records. She kept writing songs, too, focusing on lyrics.

Eventually, her songs caught the attention of publishers on Nashville's Music Row, and those showed up on several Christian contemporary and country music albums by John David Webster, Renee Austin, Clare Hyde and Linda Davis, among others.

Inspiring Superman

Davis chose "I Have Arrived" - a song Russell co-wrote with Buffy Lawson and Eric Peterelli - as the title track of her 2004 album. Its lyrics touched one well-known listener, paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve. Just before he died on Oct. 11, 2004, Reeve sent Davis a note, thanking her for recording such a powerful song about surviving the trials of life without letting spirits break.

Now, in turn, Davis thanks Russell.

"Obviously, I have been lucky to have recorded a song that can change hearts and lives," Davis tells the Tribune-Star. "I've witnessed the sincere way this lyric moves people. My voice is just the vehicle to share this message of hope."

The song begins with this passage

"For so many years, I've tasted tears, prayed for all the pain to go away, and leave me alone. All that time, I was unaware that love was all around me everywhere, but somehow I did not know. And I've learned to live with things that I cannot change. It took me so long to get to this place."

Russell got to this place, Nashville, 10 years ago. She writes songs from her home there, where she and her husband - contractor Jeff Commons - live. Russell's two grown daughters live in Nashville also. Stephanie is a cosmetologist. Ashley owns Amax Talent and has appeared in country music videos for Keith Anderson ("Pickin' Wildflowers") and Alan Jackson ("That'd Be All Right"), among others.

Indeed, music continues to run in Angie's family. Her nephews - Kentz Ward and A.J. Boone - perform in Dugger-based rock band Philpot that has become popular in New York, Florida and the Midwest.

"This is the advice I gave my nephews: This is a hard, hard road. But if it's something you love, you've got to do it," Russell says. "And isn't that what we all want to be doing - something we love?"

Russell decided to stop commuting from Indiana to Music Row a decade ago, and moved to Nashville initially as a singer. Bob Burris remembers a moment after Angie had cut some demos and gotten some performing offers, "She said it was going to tear her family up too much and said, 'Dad, I'm just not going to do that.'"

Russell says she still sings, mostly on Nashville Writers' Nights. But she's focused on songwriting. And she's learned a lot.

"I thought that was just the easiest thing in the world, to write a song, get a cut [on an album] and boom, boom, boom," she says.

It doesn't come easy

In reality, "the competition is tough" for a Nashville songwriter, Russell adds. And as for the difficulty of landing a contract like the one she just signed, she says, "I think the chances of winning the Indiana lottery are stronger."

And it's gotten tougher lately, she adds. While country music remains popular in its traditional hotbeds, Russell explains, "Our market shares have really dropped [elsewhere]. And when our market shares drop, [publishers] start cutting back. And instead of 80 writers at, say, EMI, you might have 20."

Still, she's anxious and ready to deliver her work for the Corlew Group. She keeps a notepad and tape recorder with her to preserve her ideas. One popped up when her husband was dealing with a difficult home buyer. "And I said, 'Man, she gives you something to drink about,'" Russell says. "And I said, 'Hey, that's a great [song] hook.'"

She has co-written songs with Gary Duffey, (who also wrote the country hit "Paint Me A Birmingham"), Johnny Neel and Cotten, and even added some lyrical enhancements to songs by pop star Sheryl Crow, whose sister Kathy is a close friend of Russell. Meanwhile, Russell also says she's surprised by the number of young Nashville writers.

"It's all about a story," she says. "And I don't know if you really become a storyteller until you get a little dust on your boots.

"There's been times the last few years, I wished I was still arranging flowers at the flower shop [in Dugger]," Russell continues, before her voice perks back up. "But I had a dream in my heart, and I came here 10 years ago and I've toughed it out. And I'm hoping the fruit of my labor is about to pay off."

Mark Bennett can be reached by telephone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377, by e-mail at mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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