When one musical door closed for Rick Russell and Josh Graham – former members of Bakersfield, California’s country group the Smokin’ Armadillos – another door opened in a very big way.
Not long after the dust settled from the bittersweet farewell show for the Smokin’ Armadillos, lead vocalist Rick Russell knew his musical journey was not ready to be over.
“Deep down I always knew that I would record a solo album just to see what it sounded like, but at that point when the farewell show ended, I just really started focusing on my kids,” Russell says. “Then I just kept getting the itch. I really wanted to get in there and record again.”
In the 13 years which Russell spent fronting the Smokin’ Armadillos, he and acoustic guitarist, Josh Graham, took pride in the solid relationships they were building along the way in Nashville.
“I had talked to Max T. Barnes and Jason Greene and a couple of other songwriters,” Russell says of his preparation to record a solo project. “I got these songs, and I really liked them.”
Knowing Graham’s musical ability to work behind the board in the recording studio, Russell approached his former bandmate to see if he would be interested in helping an old friend out. “I told him when he had time that I wanted to record the songs,” recalls Russell. “I wasn’t in a hurry; I just wanted to put a project together down the road or just for myself.”
“It was nice to put my finger back in the music a little bit,” adds Graham who also engineered the Smokin’ Armadillos final independent album, Strike the Match. “I don’t think any of us were burned out on playing music because we were still having fun.”
In 2005, the two went back into the studio to begin work on Russell’s solo endeavors. “Initially I think he was just asking for some help with it, and then it got to the point where he was thinking we should be doing something together,” Graham says. “I got back in the frame of mind that it would be fun to make music with Rick again because for 13 years, that’s all we did together.”
“At that time there were hardly any duos out,” notes Russell. “I thought that marketing wise it would be good for the two of us. Josh said sure, and we went for it.”
With the musical fire once again burning deep down inside both Russell and Graham, they went forward and decided to call themselves Lucky Ned Pepper. “We started brainstorming ideas, trying to think of something kind of western,” Graham says of the name-picking process. “Lucky Ned Pepper is the name of Robert Duvall’s character in True Grit. I thought it sounded fun, and who’s going to knock a name of one of Robert Duvall’s characters? That’s strong right there! Nothing is more western than a John Wayne movie. It’s a little fun and little quirky.”
So in 2009, the two decided to revamp the project as Lucky Ned Pepper. They went into Graham’s studio and began carving out what would be their debut project. Along the way, they connected with long time friend and vocalist, Joy Sampson, who would perform two duets on the project along with a plethora of background vocals. At one point, the duo became a trio for a short time until Sampson became pregnant with her fourth child and opted out of life on the road. Nonetheless, the project took on a very distinct sound with the addition of Sampson’s vocals, and all three decided her vocals would stay.
The result is the 11-track debut, "Get Lucky", from what will soon be one of the most talked about new artists in country music. With their unique sound and style, Lucky Ned Pepper will be sure to turn many heads on Music Row with their stellar selection of songs including upbeat and infections “I Remember The Music,” written by Ashley Gorley (Trace Adkins’ “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Brad Paisley’s “Start a Band,” Carrie Underwood’s “All American Girl”) and Wade Kirby (George Strait’s “I Saw God Today,” Joe Nichols’ “Believers”), and the San Antonio-flavored “If I Stay” penned by writing legend Dean Dillon (George Strait’s “Living for the Night,” “The Breath You Take,” “If I Know Me”) and Larry Bastian (Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo,” “Unanswered Prayers”).
“We’re not traditional country, but we’re country,” Graham says of Lucky Ned Pepper’s music. “We’re just right down the middle country. It’s something different. We do have the advantage where we get to jump into a place where we don’t have to start from scratch, but we’re still starting over in a lot of ways.”
As they once again find their way in country music, Lucky Ned Pepper knows that the endless opportunities are waiting on them behind every door. “We started off with very little hopes that this would just be fun to record something, and whatever happens, happens,” explains Graham. “I think it was at the point where we realized how good these songs are. We are really feeling that the songs are coming across and we conveyed what we wanted to convey with them. Nashville’s heritage is the heritage of songwriters, of musicians and of story tellers. We picked songs that mean something to us so we can interpret the songs. I think we did that really well. Now we’re up to our neck in it, and we really want to do it again. We want to play, we want to do shows, we want the record deal, we want an ACM Award ... You’ve got to set goals and go for them. It’s something that we want to do for the rest of our life.”