There is something about rural America. It runs through us all. It’s where our heritages began as Americans.
The qualities of rural America are simple and universal. These qualities include dignity and authenticity to despair and pain. Rural America is beautiful, raw and real. That’s where the story of Boys Called Susan starts. Boys Called Susan is two cousins, Bryan Russo and Christopher Shearer. Both are seasoned musicians but haven’t worked cohesively together up until their debut album, Pennsyltucky.
The album began as a promise to Susan Knudson, Shearer’s mom and Russo’s aunt. Before she passed away, she made them promise her that they would one day make music together. This album, through hard work and strife, is the answer to that promise.
After enduring death and job loss, the cousins started to write music together. When Shearer was offered a job in another state, their album started to come to fruition. They exchanged demos across state lines. Russo would often come up with the initial “sketch” of the song with his guitar and vocals. He would then record himself and send it to Shearer.
“Bryan is really good at coming up with the initial spark to a song. I’m able to take that spark and as a multi instrumentalist, add in bass, guitar, drums or keys. We are really each other’s ying to our yang,” Shearer explains.
When they had 40 songs, they began to ship them around Nashville. To their surprise, producer and songwriter Phil Madeira was willing to produce the album. Members of Emmylou Harris’ band, Red Dirt Boys, agreed to back Russo and Shearer in the Butcher Shop recording studio. Although the Boys were now setup for what could be perceived as commercial success, this was the last of their worries.
“None of this was done for commerce,” Russo explained. “This was done for art and for paying homage to someone we loved, who shaped us into who we are.”
Pennsyltucky is 11 tracks all written by the cousins. The name derives from where their grandparents lived in rural Pennsylvania. This is where both Russo and Shearer shared a mutual feeling of home and where many of the albums musical influences were discovered.
This album is not meant to be a protest album or make any concrete political statements. The lyrics focus on questions relevant to our society now, not answers.
“We were trying to understand different points of view. We acknowledge that there is polarization, but we are trying to find the common ground in between, rather than just shouting our truth.”
Shearer added, “The album focuses on asking questions, not telling people things, because we don’t even know the answers.”
This sentiment goes hand in hand with the album’s political and religious undertones, while staying in sync with the common ground that captures all Americans. In an age of black and white opinions, this album provides a refuge for the simple questions that separate us.
Each track on the album takes on a different identity. One can look at the tracks one day and pick out a favorite tune and have a completely different selection the next.
While chatting with Boys Called Susan, they each discussed standout album tracks for them. Russo’s standout is “The Ballad of Little Cherie,” which is based on the abduction of Cherie Mahan in 1985. The song examines how tragedy affects small towns and strips them of their innocence. Mahan went missing on Cornplanter Road, the same road Russo and Shearer’s grandparents lived. A simple musical arrangement mixed with a gentle harmonica really let the lyrics speak in this one.
For Shearer, the album’s lead single “Company Man” is one of his favorites. The song’s lyrical tone speaks to “17-year-old punk rock Chris” while having a classic touch. This song takes on everything that makes true country music great. From its instrumentation to its blue-collar lyrics, this is a “stick it to the man” anthem that resonates from the coal miner to the Wall Street broker.
There are many universal themes on this record as it sheds light on many topics and countless emotions. Shearer says he views this album as a coffee table book. It’s 11 different snapshots of similar subjects. Both cousins acknowledge the album is about hardships, both experienced and observed. Russo sees the songs mirroring the sentiments of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
“The album starts in a dark time, but ends in acceptance,” Russo says.
The Boys Called Susan definitely accomplished what they set out for with skillfully written lyrics and poignant arrangements. The album ends in hope, but that hope comes with grief, strife, loss, acceptance and lots of love.
Boys Called Susan’s raw vulnerability and dedication to what unites all humans results in this album’s authentic delivery. This album is based on many things experienced in rural America, but they are truths that are intertwined in all of our consciouses despite our upbringings. This album isn’t made out of an attempt for stardom. In the end it’s two cousins who fulfilled a promise, wrote some songs and spoke truth.
“If we have to give all these albums away as coasters at Bryan’s kids’ weddings 10 years down the road, than so be it,” Shearer concludes. “We made the album we wanted to make and said the things we felt needed to be said.”