What's the biggest difference between the United States and the recently Westernized Russia?
"Cheese," said Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky of the Russian six-piece country band Bering Strait.
"Our stores have more products," the 22-year-old dobro and steel guitar player explained in a recent phone interview from his Nashville home. "They are not as monopolized as America. It's a funny thing to say, but we have a bigger choice of cheese."
While Kraft hasn't taken over the Eastern hemisphere yet, a different kind of American cheese has invaded Russia in the form of modern country music.
After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, American culture became hugely popular in Russia. Country artists are still popular there today, although they are labeled as "pop," not "country."
"I was talking to my dad (who lives in Ostrovsky's hometown of Obninsk, located 60 miles south of Moscow) on the phone the other day," Ostrovsky said. "He said, 'Do you know this Shaina Twain?' I said, 'You mean Shania Twain? Yes, she's a big country star!'"
Bering Strait will perform noon to 5 p.m. Saturday outside Grand Casino Mille Lacs as part of the Bluegrass Arts & Crafts Festival. Admission is free.
Although Ostrovsky said "country" is a more accurate label for Bering Strait than "bluegrass," he believes there are ultimately only two musical genres: Good music and bad music.
Almost everyone in the country community -- and even a few people who would rather have a bomb drop on their head than listen to the new Toby Keith single -- will tell you Bering Strait falls firmly in the category of "good music."
In the span of one week in January, Bering Strait earned a Grammy nomination for its instrumental "Bearing Straight," saw its self-titled debut album released on Universal South, and landed a feature story in the New York Times.
The band -- rounded out by Obninsk natives Natasha Borzilova (vocals), Ilya Toshinsky (lead guitar), Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky (bass), Lydia Salnikova (keyboards) and Alexander Arzamastsev (drums) -- had made a gradual climb to household status in America since settling in Nashville in the mid-1990s. Band members had been featured on "60 Minutes" and their first video had been embraced by Country Music Television.
If you go
What: Bluegrass Arts & Crafts Festival
Who/when: Bering Strait, noon-5 p.m. Saturday, outdoors, free
Lonesome River Band, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, outdoors, free
Ricky Skaggs, 5 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, $15 and $20
Where: Grand Casino Mille Lacs
But when the album and Grammy nomination hit, they became an overnight sensation, especially in their home country. Ostrovsky had just returned stateside from a Christmas vacation when the Russian media blitz began. A few of his bandmates were still back home.
"The guys over there were doing interviews 24 hours a day," he said. "It's funny how (the media) can find you when they need to. I was kind of jealous of the guys who stayed a few more days in Russia. It would've been neat to experience that."
Still, Ostrovsky -- who said his only measure of success is making his parents happy and proud -- is approaching fame tentatively.
"Recently, I was walking down the street and I saw a guy wearing a Bering Strait T-shirt," he said. "First, I thought about going up and thanking him. Then I thought of just saying 'Nice T-shirt.' Finally, I just walked past him. He didn't recognize me, but it was still a good feeling."
The music has actually been the easiest part of Bering Strait's rise. The youngest group member was only 6 years old when a guitar teacher in Obninsk first turned the youngsters on to American bluegrass music. The band underwent a difficult split with its longtime mentor in 1998. ("We weren't kids any more and he didn't want to acknowledge that," Toshinsky said in the band's news release materials. "In Russia, he was the boss. In America there would be other people involved. ... It freaked him out.")
In 1999, Bering Strait signed with Arista Records. The band bounced around to four more labels before landing with Universal South in 2002. The band's first stateside manager, Mike Kinnamon, housed all six musicians for two years, but he was slowly going broke and the band members couldn't work regular jobs to support themselves because of visa restrictions. But as frustrating as this period was, the band used its time wisely.
"We didn't waste time," Ostrovsky said. "We came together as a band, writing songs all the time and improving our songwriting skills and musicianship."
Their debut album includes a dozen polished, radio-friendly tracks, but only two of them were written by the band. Although their touring schedule won't allow it for a while, Ostrovsky is anxious to get back in the studio.
"On the new album, I am excited to showcase what we accomplished during that time (of record label strife)," he said. "The next record will have a lot of our own stuff and some music from the heart."
If the reaction to their Russian folk tune "Porushka-Paranya" is any indication, fans will love the second album even more than the first. At Bering Strait's first major concert two years ago -- an opening slot for Trisha Yearwood -- the band received a standing ovation, and "Porushka" was the most popular song.
"The Russian folk song has become a super live hit," Ostrovsky said. "Everyone goes crazy when we play it. We never thought that would happen."
Even if people are initially drawn to Bering Strait for its novelty value as a Russian band playing American country, it's the music that is propelling the band to the next level. Even in a genre known for its radio cheese.
"A lot of people still fall for the novelty thing and think, 'Wow, a Russian country band, I think I'll check it out,'" Ostrovsky said. "But when they see a show they forget what the story was about. They respond to who we are as musicians."
Bering Strait can be found online at www.beringstraitonline.com.
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