Calvin Russell is a perfect example of the phenomenon of a Texas musician being famous in Europe, often in one specific country, while remaining virtually unknown back home. One of the few Austin artists actually born in Austin, he recorded fifteen albums between 1990 and 2011; all but one were released on various French labels (the exception was on a German label). He headlined major festivals and, in one year, performed 178 times and earned up to $15,000 a show, even though he could hardly get a club booking in Texas.
Calvin Russell was actually more an alias than a stage name as he was born Calvert Russell Kosler on November 1, 1948, in Austin, Texas. His father was a short-order cook, and his mother was a waitress. By age eighteen, he was serving time in prison in Huntsville for forgery and drug possession. There he started writing songs. After many run-ins with the law and spending time in Texan and Mexican jails, he was on probation when he formed his hard-driving, proto-Americana roots rock/country/blues band the Characters, and therefore not allowed to frequent bars, let alone perform in them.
In 1989 Russell, whose songwriting ambitions were being encouraged by none other than Townes Van Zandt, accidentally gave the only copy of a homemade demo tape to Patrick Mathe, head of the French record label New Rose, who immediately signed him and released A Crack In Time (1990), which sold 100,000 copies, to critical acclaim, though virtually all the reviews were in French, German, or Dutch. One exception was an Austin American-Statesman review which speculated that Europeans “equate raw with real, unpolished with uncompromising,” as if Russell, nothing if not real and uncompromising, owed his Transatlantic fame to a misunderstanding. Mathe rather emphasized Russell’s authenticity by featuring his face, once described as “a roadmap of hell,” prominently on album covers and billboards (his daunting looks notwithstanding, at age forty-nine, he married his fourth wife, a twenty-two-year-old Swiss supermodel).
Russell’s discography is extraordinarily complicated, as Mathe sold New Rose after Sounds From The Fourth World (1991) but later reacquired albums Russell made for the new owners—Soldier (1992) and Le Voyageur (1993) and another released by Sony, Dream of the Dog (1995)—and reissued them on a new label, Last Call, which also released seven more of Russell’s albums. In his last years, Russell played infrequently and made his final public appearance in November 2010 at Giddy Ups in Manchaca, at a reunion for the long-closed Austin Outhouse, where he used to perform. At the time, he weighed no more than 100 pounds and, despite a liver transplant, died of cancer on April 3, 2011, at age sixty-two. In death, he received a little more recognition than in life, rating obituaries not only in the French daily Le Monde, but in the American entertainment weekly Variety. He was survived by his wife Cynthia and a son.
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Michael Corcoran, “Calvin Russell passes away Sunday morning,” Austin Music Source, austin360.com (http://www.austin360.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/music/entries/2011/04/03/calvin_russell_passes_away_sun.html ), accessed November 17, 2011. Calvin Russell—Texas Rebel Roots Rock (http://www.calvinrussell.net/), accessed November 17, 2011.
Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Kosler, Calvert Russell [Calvin Russell],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
June 6, 2015
Most Recent Revision Date:
October 19, 2015
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: