It's Country Music From Russia

Bering Strait Aims For Fame Beyond Novelty

For five years, a struggling, little-known band by the name of Bering Strait knocked on doors in Nashville, trying to get noticed.

But this year turned out to be a pretty good one. In February, they released their first record and nabbed their first Grammy nomination. And in a few months, their second record will be released.

Bering Strait's sound is as pure and clean as the smell of fresh-cut bluegrass. Named after the waterway that divides Russia from America, this band does the opposite - it connects them. Correspondent Morley Safer reports in a broadcast that first aired last February.

That straightforward style is the stuff of country-music legend. And the sound may be down-home American, but Bering Strait is pure Russian. 60 Minutes met with them in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, home of the Grand Ole Opry.

"I started playing bluegrass when I was 10, and all we were doing is listening to tapes," says lead singer Natasha Borzilova. "We had these machines where we could slow down the tape and get every note that they're playing."

Ilya Toshinsky is the band's founding member, and he's been dreaming of making it big in American country music since he was 15 - which was not music to his parents' ears.

In Toshinsky's hometown of Obninsk, population 100,000, nuclear physics is the local industry. It's not exactly your old Kentucky home. Under Communism, because of nuclear research, it was a place so secret that most people didn't even know it existed.

Most of the band members are the children of elite Soviet scientists. Borzilova's mother helped to design the first Russian space shuttle. His father was a nuclear scientist who worked on the Chernobyl disaster.

Their parents all wanted the best for their kids - good educations, rewarding careers and rigorous classical music training. For Bering Strait, however, that discipline did not lead to Brahms. It led to bluegrass, when Toshinsky, at age 11, heard a tune by legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs.

"I totally fell in love," says Toshinsky. "I begged my teacher to let me learn how to play banjo."

He found sheet music at the Lenin Library in Moscow and was a fast learner. Soon, other kids at the music school flocked to him. In fact, another student, Sasha Ostrovsky, was so interested that he decided to take up, of all things, the dobro - something no one in the school had ever seen before.

Lydia Salnikova is the band's pianist, Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky plays bass, and Alexander Arzamastsev joined the band as a drummer after he finished military service.
In the early 1990s, these bluegrass babies from Obninsk became a phenomenon. They drew crowds and hard currency.

"We'd play and people came from all over the place to look at us," says Borzilova. "We just had the hat sitting there. And people would throw money. I made more than my dad, who was a head of a huge institute. I made more in a week than he made in a month."

The band played summer camps, and appeared on Russian television. But they were little more than a novelty. They decided to make a move.

"It was obvious that there was only one place in this world where you go to become a country musician. And that is Nashville," says Toshinsky.

So in 1988, they came to the Jerusalem of country music, Nashville, Tenn., where vast fortunes are made singing of heartbreak and loss.

"There has never been a non-native English speaker make it in country music. Finnish, German, French, Swedish acts. None of them succeeded, so the deck is stacked incredibly high against these kids," says Robert K. Oermann, editor-at-large of Country Music magazine.

But Bering Strait thought it struck gold in Nashville. Record deals fell through, and the timing couldn't have been worse. This musical boomtown went into the biggest slump in its history. And the child stars from Russia were just another group without a gig.

Reality finally set in. "It actually didn't settle in until a couple of years later, when the guys were knocking on my door at 2 a.m., saying that they have nothing to eat," says Borzilova.

In five years, four labels picked up the band but collapsed before they could put out a record.

Back in Obninsk, their parents were getting restless. And in a documentary called "The Ballad of Bering Strait," Salnikova's father makes no bones about his low opinion of his daughter's future.

"Today a musician. Tomorrow unemployed," he says in Russian.

It's a parental remark as old as time, but so far, the band is still working. Toshinsky, in particular, is a sought-after session man in Nashville studios.

But like most country bands, their biggest kick is playing at the Grand Ole Opry. And when they do play live, the show-stopper is an old Russian folk song called "Peruschka" - set to a bluegrass beat.

"I think the Russian folk thing is what sets them apart. That instrumental stuff that they do is just dazzling. You listen to that stuff…they're just so good," says Oermann.

For the six young musicians from Obninsk, talent and perseverance seem to be paying off.

"A Russian band nominated for a Grammy. All the major stations, all the newspapers, everybody's talking about it," says Toshinsky. "So I think with that kind of response, I think we can do some great things."

  • Ellen Crean

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