John Bright “Johnny” Russell (1940-2001) was born and raised in Moorhead and went on to become a star of the Grand Ole Opry and a popular country recording artist, with such hits as “Catfish John” and “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.” He is best remembered as the author of “Act Naturally,” one of the greatest country-pop crossover songs–a hit for both Buck Owens and the Beatles that sold over twenty million copies.
Born in Moorhead on January 23, 1940, John Bright Russell grew up listening to Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb on the Grand Ole Opry and longing to be an entertainer. When he was twelve, his father, a sharecropper and mechanic, moved the family to Fresno, California; as a teenager there Russell began winning talent contests as a joke-cracking singer of country songs. Just out of high school, while playing in small clubs, he was signed by Radio Records and recorded his song “In a Mansion Stands My Love.” When the song attracted attention as covered by Jim Reeves on RCA Victor, Russell headed for Nashville. He was nineteen.
After his occasional recordings on ABC and MGM Records in the early 1960s had little impact, Russell returned to Mississippi, then to California as a local broadcast host. When Voni Morrison, a songwriter with whom he sometimes shared credits, brought Russell’s “Act Naturally,” a sad-sack comic song that he’d written in a half hour, to Buck Owens’ attention, Buck & the Buckaroo’s recording proved a major 1963 country hit. The song became a crossover classic in 1965, when the Beatles covered it, Ringo Starr doing the vocals. Russell then returned to Nashville as a publishing executive and staff writer for the Wilburn Brothers’ Sure-Fire Music, where he wrote songs that were recorded by the Wilburns and Loretta Lynn.
In 1971 Russell finally began focusing on his own performing career. Chet Atkins signed him to record for RCA Victor, which led to his highest-charting records, “Catfish John” (reflecting his Delta upbringing) in 1972, the Grammy-nominated “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer” and “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” the following year, and “Hello I Love You” in 1975, all by other songwriters and in contrast to the heartbreak ballads Russell usually wrote. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton had a hit with his “Making Plans” (1980), George Strait with his “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” (1984), and Gene Watson with “Got No Reason to Go Home” (1985).
Russell was widely seen on TV’s Hee Haw, and he joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1985, quickly becoming a mainstay as an affecting singer and charming comedian—with the jokes often turning on his own notable weight. In 2000 top country artists backed him as he recorded “Actin’ Naturally,” a collection of his own songs, including “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry,” which became a standard—and all published by his own company, appropriately named Sunflower County Songs. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001, the year of his untimely death.
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