Oakland’s Dick Stusso embodies Wild West nostalgia. Gussied up in a Stetson hat, bolo tie and duster coat, he fits the archetypal vision of a rhinestone cowboy perfectly. His music feels even more familiar, but not because it resorts to go-to country sounds. It actually does the opposite, following a stream of consciousness created by a rustic mélange of sonic progressions and lyrics that both fantasize a new existence and reflect on life as it is. It’s the kind of nostalgia that doesn’t necessarily need to be experienced firsthand in order to understand.
That’s the case for Nic Russo, the namesake and musician behind the wrangler persona. After his run in the punk scene, a world known for its concise and curt music, Russo created Dick Stusso to channel his rural affinity in a new form.
“In the punk band, we’d do fun 30-second- to minute-long songs,” said Russo, who kicks off the Outside Lands Music Festival Sunday on the Panhandle stage. “I think Dick Stusso and the most recent stuff I’ve been doing is, in its own way, a blend of stuff I’ve done before, but all under one umbrella. I’ve got some funny songs; I’ve got some serious songs. It’s all kind of mixed into one.”
Aptly titled, Russo’s first release as Dick Stusso was Nashville Dreams / Sings the Blues. The 2015 LP is a home-recorded ode to hitting the country road. Twists and turns come along the way, represented by the album’s exploration of existential and sometimes self-deprecating thoughts. Taking on all the instruments himself, Russo also embraces a plethora of sounds from mic feedback to twangy clangs and weepy bluegrass.
Despite a stronger concentration toward the “serious,” Russo keeps his cool when it comes to maintaining what he calls the “Dick Stusso flair.”
“I just kind of imagine myself wearing a cowboy hat or something,” Russo said, laughing. “I tend not to think about it too much when writing. I worry about how I’ve done, and how [the image] fits into everything after.”
In Heaven, a record he released this year, however, encountered some challenges. Almost all of the original recordings were stolen after a burglar ransacked Russo’s home studio. Forced to start fresh, Dick Stusso teamed up with Bay Area musician Greg Ashley, of Gris Gris, to work at his studio.
Russo, with full band in tow, used Ashley’s studio space and sound-engineering expertise to reimagine the album. In Heaven is a cohesively gloomy take on Russo’s classic DIY sound, a step ultimately made for the record’s best interest.
“I have a tendency to make songs go all over the place, but I think [recording In Heaven] ended up being a lot better of a presentation of what I was trying to create,” Russo said. “A lot of things got enhanced just by doing it that way. It was serendipity or something, and I’m happy with how it turned out.”
Hints of Russo’s eccentric style abound throughout In Heaven. In “Modern Music,” for instance, the track breaks into a tangential bridge composed of fuzzy distortions and a free-flowing guitar riff. Russo refers to these embellishments as “happy accidents” or “flubs” that he deliberately kept in the reworked version.
Those flubs also take visual form in the music video for the bluesy title track, which features Russo’s dual personas. The first is Dick Stusso, dressed in a nearly all-white suit and hat. The other is Nic Russo clad in black, wearing a knee-length coat and a fur winter hat, lying beachside next to a bottle of whiskey and endlessly breaking the fourth wall. Much of the imagery was envisioned by director Sarah Strunin, but Russo did have a hand in depicting the collision of his universes.
“I, of course, added my own nature of throwing in some curveballs to make [the video] a little different,” he said. “But they’re all sort of just me [in] different aspects, like the man in black versus the man in white.”