Russ Garner was born on a small western Nebraska farm or "dugout", about
60 miles from Alliance, a town in the far western part of Nebraska, due south of Rapid City and a bit north
east of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Music became a part of his life at an early age. And he was pretty industrious
working on the family farm. He began selling chickens and eventually saved
up enough money to buy himself a ten dollar guitar when he was just eight
Russ was inspired at that early age from the songs he'd hear by such recording
artists as Jimmie Rodgers, Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart.
Perhaps getting the guitar was the easy part. But to continue his musical
growth, he had to learn how to play the guitar. Money was hard to come by in that
era just after the Great Depression. While formal guitar lessons were out
of the question, he proceeded to teach himself to play.
He continued to hone his musical skills and by the time he was fifteen years
old was playing in some of the local dance bands. In 1949, when he was about
17 years old, he organized the original "Night Riders" band and soon they
were playing country dances throughout the Nebraska panhandle.
The spotlight continued to shine on Russ and soon he had his own daily radio
show over KCOW in Alliance. He also was appearing on a weekly television
show over KDUH-TV in Hay Springs, Nebraska.
This endeavor lasted up to 1953. Uncle Sam needed him to do military service in Korea; his tour
of duty lasted until 1955. But even during his military service, he found
the time to practice his musical skills. He maanged to find himself an old Japanese
guitar and carried it with him and found himself entertaining the troops whenever
He came back to his home after his tour of duty and found work over local radio
and television stations. During this time, he was also appearing regularly over
the popular Curly's Corral, a live country music show that was heard
over KCSR radio in Chadron, Nebraska.
In 1959, he decided to take advantage of the opportunities (a recording
contract with Merit Records) presented to him
on the west coast and moved to southern California. He started working
with a band that was called the "Ranch Hands". The band later changed its
name to "The Rivermen" after their recording of "River Man" started getting
attention on the radio air waves.
Russ and the band toured all over the western United States, including extended
stays in Las Vegas, Nevada, Denver, Colorado and northwards in Alaska. While
he was in the midst of a five-week stint in Alaska, a disastrous earthquake
struck the area in March of 1964. During those tours, he appeared with such
stars as Ferlin Husky, Eddie Dean, Jim Reevs, Cowboy Copas and Skeets McDonald.
He appeared on the famous Town Hall Party show out of Compton, California.
He started getting the attention of disc jockeys and fans with his Merit records
release of "Say Bill". His follow-up to that tune, "River Man" b/w "The
Puppet" was a hit and a chart topper in many areas of the country. Billboard
magazine wrote in December 8, 1962, "Catchy song about a river man is sung
in attractive fashion by the chanter over appropriate backing. ... Good wax
here. ... He could make a dent via these efforts."
It found its way across the Atlantic Ocean in England, where it was not even released!
He appeared on such shows as "Cal's Corral" over KCOP-TV. He even had his
own "Russ Garner Show" over KWOW in Pomona.
His recording of "River Man" led to another experience as well we learn in a
1965 magazine article. Darlene Talley wrote "Record in place, amp turned
on, turn table rejected, record plays - and it just took four bars of "River Man"
to tell me this boy had the voice and talent...I immediately wrote him asking
if I could represent him by forming a fan club in his name." And he did give
Darlene was inspired and determined enough that in a note to the "RUSSlers",
she told them of some good news around 1965. First, the International Russ Garner
Fan Club won the top two awards from K-T, for Best Fan Club and Best Journal.
The awards were given out in Nashville during the annual Fan Club Convention
and Banquet that was held back then at the Noel Hotel. Russ attended the banquet
and called her long distance with the good news that evening.
The good news didn't end there. She also told the members that they also received
an award from the "National Fan Club Registry" for "Best FAn Club President" and
was signed by Thurston Moore of Heather Publications.
As the 1960s were drawing to a close, Russ found himself doing a U.S.O. tour
in Europe and England.
In 1970, he had an accident that resulted in two broken wrists. The guitar had
to be tucked away for about a year while he recovered. Afterwards, he made
the trek to Nashville, Tennessee. As a songwriter, he got the attention
of Tree Publishing, who accepted several of his tunes. That association led
to an appearance on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree, where he made several
One of the tunes he wrote, "Tear Stained Guitar" was recorded by Red Sovine
on the Starday label. A 1965 article notes that Swanee Caldwell also recorded
the tune on the King record label.
Around 1982, he left Nashville and moved up to South Dakota.
He formed a new band called the "Renegades" and were doing personal appearances
in the Black Hills area.
With a partner, they took over management of a night club in Box Elder,
South Dakota, a town close to Rapid City as well as the Ellsworth Air Force
Base. The Renegades were regularly appearing at this club when they weren't
out doing appearances elsewhere. This endeavor lasted until around 1992.
In 1992, his vocal cords required surgery, which was successful. As one might
expect, the recovery period for such surgery took a while. But during that
period of recuperation, he found employment delivering Winnebago
Motor Homes from the factory in Iowa to dealers in 40 states, including Alaska.
We asked Russ about that job as it is a bit unique.
He told us it was an interesting experience. "We were allowed only two things,
bed (sleeping bag) & heat in winter, everything else was off-limits.
Although we were allowed to tow a small car, I usually flew back to the factory
on Northwest Air." He flew enough that eventually his frequent flier miles enabled
him to take a Hawaiian vacation in 1998.
When the new milennium rolled around, it found him semi-retired. The Russ Garner
band still continues to book appearances on the weekends in the Nebraska,
South Dakota and Wyoming area.
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Russ Garner
himself for providing information, details and photos from his career.
- Country Song Roundup; No. 91; December 1965; Charlton
Publications, Inc.; Derby, CT
- Country Music Review; May/June 1965; Cal-Western Publications, Inc.;