STEUBEN — Chemistry between people is unpredictable and unmistakable. For the band Shirt Tail Kin, a recording they put together last year — a first for each of them — took that subtle recognition of a commonality among them into a bonding experience.
Curtis Russet, who works part time as a family nurse practitioner at the Milbridge Medical Center, formed the alternative country rock band in 1971.
Shirt Tail Kin’s other members are Mike Bennett, drums, percussion; Peter Davis, guitar, pedal-steel guitar; and Ezra Rugg, bass.
“We had been together since 2017 and realized we had a body of work,” said Russet. “The recording process was a really crucial time for us to get together and practice and get to know each other in a detailed way that we now carry with us when we play live. Recording was delightful and powerful and really helped us take a step forward as a band.”
The collection, “Face and a Name,” is all original music written by Russet, a guitarist, and Pete Davis, who plays guitar and pedal-steel guitar. The entree to the recording studio on Mount Desert Island was provided by drummer Mike Bennett. Ezra Rugg, a bass player, makes up the fourth player. All of the musicians sing.
Like many musicians, Russet had performed with a collection of other players, the configurations changing up depending on the venue and musicians’ availability. When Shirt Tail Kin formed, Russet decided it was the perfect time to start showcasing original music.
“They all are very gifted musicians,” he said of the group. He said Shirt Tail Kin is thriving despite being “geographically challenged.”
Russet lives in Steuben; Davis resides in Wayne outside of Augusta; Rugg lives in Freedom and Bennett makes his home in Lamoine.
“We rarely rehearse,” said Russet, “which is testimony to the quality of musicianship in this band. There is something about the chemistry of the four of us and the material that comes together that we all really enjoy.”
Their recording producer and engineer, John Kurgan of Mount Desert Island, first sat in with Shirt Tail Kin (he is a guitarist) at Bennett’s invitation. Kurgan said in the days when he worked outside of New York he helped record Sting, which exposed him to “endless amounts of people.”
In addition to mastering the technical aspects, he said, one has to learn how to run a recording session.
“There is a lot of vulnerability that comes up and you need to know how to help people get past it,” Kurgan said. “These guys have no ego in the studio at all. They are just there to work. They are very focused, have a tremendous camaraderie. The two writers [Russet and Davis] have much respect for one another and take one another’s material seriously.”
“They just have something going on,” Kurgan added. “They settle into a lot of these little things, which are simple but their virtuosity makes it anything but simple.”
Russet describes Shirt Tail Kin’s music as rock ‘n’ roll with a country influence. Kurgan calls it alternative rock with a good country base. Everything just seems to come together.
Bennett and Rugg are accomplished jazz musicians and comfortable with improvisation. Russet and Davis’s writing styles complement each other. The CD opens with “Dashboard Lights,” a pulsating piece about getting home to someone. The music uncannily mirrors that emotion of eagerness and anticipation and impatience.
“Crooked Stairs” has one of the strongest country sounds. “Road to Texas” and “Rust,” both written by Davis, are beautifully executed pieces both lyrically and musically. Russet played one of his compositions, “Molecule,” for years and years to his now adult children before just recently adding lyrics.
“The majority of my songs start out as lyrics and some start out as a melodies or riffs or musical ideas that I then add words to,” he said. Russet’s “You’re Not Here,” has a pounding beat and definitely uses Maine contextually, speaking of wood piles and blueberry boxes. His lyrics are often infused with humor and irony. “Just My Teeth” is about swallowing lost love. “Weaverville” is an ode to a town just north of Asheville, N.C.
Russet works at his day job three days a week, an abbreviated schedule he adopted years ago to make time for family, music and fun. A Rhode Island native, Russet was first introduced to Downeast Maine in 1989 when he arrived as an apprentice at Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro. He was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, spent some time as a ski bum in Colorado and then continued his education at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“My grandfather was a nurse and my mother was a nurse,” Russet said. “My grandfather was an orderly for so long that the state of New York granted him nurse status.”
Following graduation he and his family moved to Maine. Russet finds practicing medicine keeps him integrated in the community — first Gouldsboro, then Harrington and now Milbridge.
“I close the door and I hear everyone’s stories,” he said.
Shirt Tail Kin often hits the road with gigs in Hallowell, Belfast and Northport. They will play at the Arootsakoostik Music Festival this summer as well as other venues. They consider the Pickled Wrinkle pub in Birch Harbor their home base and perform there monthly to standing-room only crowds. Their music has played on National Public Radio and has had air play on stations in Portland.
Sarah Christensen, who, with her husband, Jesse, owns the Pickled Wrinkle, said it has been fun to watch Shirt Tail Kin grow.
“Their music is always super upbeat and always evolving,” she said. “It’s not always the same set. They are clearly having a blast while they are playing. That’s what people love to watch. The fact that they have so many other musician contacts means they are always bringing in friends to play a song or two with them. Other musicians come to see them too.”
Upcoming gigs: June 29, Mike’s House Party with Beach Trash; July 6, Arootsakoostik Music Festival in New Sweden; July 9, Orono Public Library; July 26, Pickled Wrinkle; and July 29; Tidal Falls in Hancock.
For more info, visit shirttailkin.com.