RIPLEY, Ont. - Tom Russell simply refuses to grow up. When watching the 47-year-old truck driver with Hyndman Transport interact with the group of elementary school students that crowd him this warm, ...
ROCKIN' IN RIPLEY: Tom Russell (left) gets rocking with Michael Wilkins (centre) and his son, Spencer, at a recent charity concert at Ripley-Huron Community School. Though a trucker by trade, Russell is a rocker at heart, having worked with more than 30 students at the school to help develop their musical talents for the show. Photo by Adam Ledlow
RIPLEY, Ont. – Tom Russell simply refuses to grow up. When watching the 47-year-old truck driver with Hyndman Transport interact with the group of elementary school students that crowd him this warm, May afternoon, the only thing that really distinguishes him from the pint-sized group is his gruff, gravelly voice. Apart from that, he’s just one of the kids.
It’s the evening of Ripley-Huron Community School’s charity concert and a crowd of some 300 strong is buzzing away in the school’s gymnasium. The raspy voice can be heard above the din of the anxious crowd, as Russell darts to all corners of the gym, shouting last-minute orders where they’re needed. Teachers and students alike listen intently when Russell addresses them, moving his arms in grand gestures to make sure everyone is getting the point. And they do get the point: Russell is running the show.
After finalizing any last-minute details before the concert gets underway, Russell pauses, breathless in front of one of the three mics lining the stage and offers a mischievous, “Hi,” before ducking behind the curtain for good. His energy is spastic, occasionally absent-minded, but nonetheless infectious, and the casual observer can hardly doubt that Russell’s antics are driven by a serious passion.
That passion for music has been a lifelong obsession for Russell. “I got an instrument stuffed in my mouth when I was four years old,” he told Truck News. After spending many of his younger years playing drums in local rock bands and opening for such acts as Canadian rocker Kim Mitchell, Russell had his musical passions reignited when he attended a talent show at his son’s school two years ago.
Seeing great musical potential in a number of students, including his son, Russell felt it was his duty to help cultivate their hidden talents. With the assistance of Hyndman and a small financial donation, Russell decided to enter a float in the community’s fall fair parade. After some practice and coaching, Russell, with three of his sons and another local boy, rocked the streets of Ripley with their rendition of Beverly Hills by Weezer. With their first performance out of the way, all the group needed was a singer. They found one in McKenna Scott, who at 16 years of age has already been hailed by many as a potential Canadian Idol candidate. With a lead vocalist in place, NEXT RITE was born.
NEXT RITE went on to play a couple of shows at the school, with Bill Colley, principal/occasional musician at Ripley-Huron Community School, joining the troupe on stage for a few songs.
“Tom is so instrumental in keeping them going and teaching them what it’s like to be in a band; the dedication, the commitment, the time, the rehearsal, all the kind of stuff that he’s gone through in his life he’s sharing with these kids at a young age,” Colley says.
Hyndman allowed Russell to switch shifts in order to accommodate more home time so he could spend more time developing the band and also let the group use one of its trailers to take to the shows. By the following year’s school talent show, Russell had scouted out another young band, No Parking. In the fall of 2006, Russell organized a dance where both NEXT RITE and No Parking performed to raise money for the community’s skate park.
Now two years later, tonight’s charity concert has taken Russell’s talents to the next level. Working in full cooperation with school officials, Russell has organized a musical showcase that will feature the talents of some 35 children, playing everything from horns to keyboards to guitars, with some even singing back-up vocals. But despite their small stature, their talent is anything but diminutive.
“It’ll just blow you away how incredible these kids are,” Colley told Truck News before the show.
Russell has been running rehearsals for the show on breaks and after school, working with Colley and the school’s guitar teacher, Scott Chow to help prep the students for the big event. After weeks of preparation, Colley says working with Russell has been a remarkably positive experience for the students.
“Honestly, I think that music can save kids’ lives,” he says. “Some kids are athletes, some kids are brainiacs, and some kids are musicians. Some of these kids would be highly susceptible for high school dropouts. They were ‘at risk’ students and now they’re in a band. It’s that kind of dedication that’s got them thinking, ‘I could do this or I could do this or I could do this.'”
Once the show is underway, the audience is treated to what may very well be some of the rocking-est tunes to ever hit the walls of an elementary school gym. The musical line-up included solo performances by NEXT RITE and No Parking, but also performances by varying combinations of students playing different instruments and singing.
The surprisingly hip song list included performances of Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, Lips of an Angel by Hinder, Glycerine by Bush and a rendition of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door for the grand finale. The show even included something for any metalheads in attendance: a ballsy rendition of Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” fronted by a mascara-smeared Russell.
The concert proved to be a roaring success – judging by the sound of the crowd, at least – and was able to earn more money for the school’s year-long fundraiser for Luca Dystrophy research, a rare disease afflicting one of the school’s students.
With another hit concert under their belts, Russell has high hopes for NEXT RITE and will be working to try and get them an opening gig at a future truck show.
But for now Russell will continue rockin’ the road, using his unadulterated spunk to inspire legions of future musicians.
“I’ve never stopped rocking and I think that’s what the kids like about me,” he says.