Talking to Russ and Huck for an hour can make their lives as musicians seem like either an endless slog through poverty or the ultimate answer to Animal House — depending on which story they're telling at any given moment.
The duo, touring as Russ Baum and Huck Finn for the last four and a half years, have built up that rare camaraderie by playing hundreds of shows each year throughout the Midwest, and that has meant times where they've not known where they'll sleep from one night to the next. But it's also led them to the stories they tell on the songs fans love.
“It's been about a year and a half since we put out Fricke,
” Russ says. “And we're still working from the same formula, I'd say, on our new material. We just live our lives and tell the story as it comes along. We tell the stories of the people we meet, the situations we're in, little pieces of everyone's story and whatever those moments inspire.”
Those people they meet have led to the formation of their thriving fan club, which meets at the Corner Bar on South Meridian each Tuesday to hand out the “Key of Mayhem” to the next eager fan. The key itself, a restroom key liberated from a long-ago bar by a fan of the band, is literally passed from the band to each new fan, requiring the "chosen one" to respond yes to any proffered task during the ensuing week.
“You have seven days of initiation, because it's not easy to be a fan of ours,” Russ explains. “You can't just pay for it, we're gonna put you through Hell for long enough to make sure you really want it. You've got to have some fun."
To hear him tell it, 13 years ago Russ was a wet-behind-the-ears nobody desperate for anyone to give him the advice he needed to become a musician for life. “Huck was running an open mic in Martinsville, and I came in like a cocky 21 year old, with all my friends who'd told me I was great,” he says. “And I was terrible! I did a couple songs and asked him for some advice about what to do if I wanted to do this for a living and he says 'keep at it, and get with me in 10 years and we'll talk about it.' I think that was his way of saying 'keep at it but, fuck off.'”
Ten years later, however, the two did meet up again, this time as Russ played the Musicians Ball at the Bluebird in Bloomington. And though he'd been reaching out to musicians anywhere he could, it was Huck who finally saw the right spark.
“We did one show together for $50 at the Wit's End, looked at each other and said, 'Let's roll!'” Russ laughs. “He asks 'what are your goals?' and I said 'I want to be like the brand Tide. Let's make a name brand, let's go after it.'”
They've definitely done that over the years, becoming a mainstay in the region and in the city of Indianapolis in particular, regularly earning Best of Indy nominations here in NUVO. A great deal of that fan respect comes from the fact that the duo's music, a hybrid of alt-country and '90s rock which owes as much to Marcy Playground as it does the Toadies, remains as bare-bones and honest as their mascot Thin Jim Danglebones, who hangs from their rearview on road trips.
“We really want to capture anything that's natural and want our albums to reflect the same thing so you can get what you get live when you're playing that album,” says Russ. “A lot of guys in the studio don't like it, because they think we need more than what comes naturally from us. 'You'd be great if you added a bass player!' 'You'd be great if you just had some violin.' And that's fine, nobody has to say we're great, but we've got to stand firm when it's working well and we've got a lot of fans who we've stirred up over the years as a team.”
This year's Best of Indy voting didn't net them the top prize – they placed first in Best Folk and Country — but they're always glad to have the support of their fans. With nearly 200 shows booked this year alone, it's clear there's a deep love for both the music and their audience involved at every level.
“Right now we've got a pretty awesome group of fans who have been supporting us, we've earned them one at a time over the last four years traveling around,” says Russ. “We have a ton of musicians who we love who compete in the same category as us in these Best of Indy things. A lot of them are friends of ours, so this year was different than when we won last year. We never have any idea where it's going to go and that keeps things exciting.”