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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kukuruza's Bluegrass Takes Root in America

The tracks clattered in counterpoint to the guitar as the train rattled all night across the endless fields of Russia. Three curious army draftees stood in the corridor, swaying slightly as an American strummed songs about lonesome engineers and lost love.


On an overnight train in the crumbling Soviet Union, "train songs," some of the simplest and most poignant in American country and bluegrass music, sounded strangely right in the vast plains of what seemed at the time an alien land.


"Crossing Borders," the third album from Kukuruza, one of the most established bands in Russia's small but growing bluegrass and country music scene, includes a train song both classic and unusual. In "Go With God My Lovely," written by the group's founder and banjo player Andrei Shepelyov, bass, banjo and guitar mimic the rhythm of a train carrying a lover far away, but the words are Russian and the wailing melody reminiscent of a Slavic folk song.


"I was a normal kid -- I liked the Beatles," said Shepelyov, 35. He was just getting interested in the "complicated harmonies" of jazz when he first heard bluegrass on a homemade tape in the mid-1970s.


"I fell in love," he said. "So simple in its structure, so strong in its emotions. It uses minimum means for maximum impact."


Shepelyov began collecting tapes of "all the old men of bluegrass;" Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe and founded a band, playing American ballads. With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1978 Soviet tour, an audience was born. In 1986, the band went professional as Kukuruza.


"But we felt a language barrier," Shepelyov said of the group's English-language repertoire. "We wanted to sing what excites us."


So they began singing in Russian. On Crossing Borders, recorded and released in the United States last year on the country and bluegrass label Sugar Hill, eight of the 14 tracks are bluegrass versions of traditional Russian songs.


In "Porushka-Poraniya," lead sing-er Irina Surina sings alone, her voice alternately rough, wailing and dissonant in the Slavic folk tradition, until the band suddenly joins in at full hoedown gallop. "The Wanderer," with its twinkling mandolin riffs, is as painfully sweet and homesick as any Appalachian tune, though it tells the story of a Siberian who escapes after having "suffered in jail for the truth."


No language barrier here. Kukuruza has a bigger audience in the United States than in Russia, playing 55 concerts last fall on the East Coast and in the Midwest.


The band has been taken under the wing of greats like Emmylou Harris, session player Jerry Douglas and the octogenarian guitarist Doc Watson, who invited Kukuruza to the 1993 music festival he held in memory of his son, Merle. They have even reached the spiritual, if not commercial, pinnacle of country music: playing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.


The band is now looking to build its Russian audience. For now, the Russian bluegrass scene is a small one, with just a few other established bands, such as the Red River Valley Boys. In 1985, it was so cozy that when fiddler Sergei Mosolov saw Kukuruza on television and decided to join -- "I saw that there was no violinist" -- it turned out they were planning to invite him.


A Sugar Hill promotion has the band members, eight men and one woman ranging in age from 26 to 39, calling bluegrass "the music of free people" and claiming they named their band "corn" after an American plant that has taken root everywhere, like bluegrass.


But in person, the musicians are not ones to wax sentimental on their post-cold-war border crossing.


"Without having been trained in music, simple people develop the same music," said guitarist Mikhail Venkhov with a shrug. "I guess it's because people are all the same."


When the band is asked the reason for its name, said Molosov, "We make up a different answer every time: 'Because it tastes good,' whatever."


Since bluegrass trickled through the Iron Curtain on homemade tapes without photos or videos, the musicians said, they never connected it with any particular style or social group.


"When we went to America, we saw the hats," said Alexei Aboltynsh, the group's bassist, referring to the cowboy hats favored by many U.S. performers along with often gaudy cowboy shirts and boots. Like his fellow players, Aboltynsh shuns such all-out Western gear, though he does sport a Martin Guitar T-shirt and has a Marlboro sticker slapped to the side of his bass.


"It's not about the hats," he said.


Kukuruza will perform 9 P.M. Thursday at the Armadillo Bar, 1 Khrustalny Pereulok. Tickets are $5 (ruble equivalent) at the door from 8-11 P.M., $3 in advance. Nearest metro: Kitai-Gorod. Tel. 298-5091.