Southern Rockin' Mama Balances Career and Family
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Summer 2014
Like most Southern musicians, Heather Russell's love affair with music began at an early age. Now lead singer for the group Paris Luna, she started in the choir at her hometown church.
"I think I started singing in church when I was like 5 years old," she said. "My mom, Celia, she was the pianist for the church, and I grew up singing right by her side.”
"She taught me piano. I really tried to learn from her, but I have always done it my own way. Everyone saw right out of the gate that I had a pretty voice, and there is nothing like that trial by fire process of singing in church!"
In her early 20s, Russell was a successful pharmaceutical sales representative. However, that wasn't her passion.
"I was in Nashville in this company owned car and had Dave Matthews Band's bus on one side of me, another tour bus on the other and then one pulled into traffic behind me, it was like 'Smokey and the Bandit' and I was trapped. It was then that I called my husband, Kane, and said I want to go for it," Russell remembered. "My boss thought I was joking when I met with him. I had just landed a really big account and turned in my notice during the same meeting."
In the early days, the group was known as the Heather Russell Band, but a promoter from Johnson City, Tennessee suggested a change.
"We were opening for Rusted Root and this promoter told me that if I wanted any press from the show I had to change the name of the band," Russell said.
He gave her 15 minutes, so Russell did the only thing she could.
"I called my mama," she laughed. "After she freaked out -- which didn't really help me at the time -- she told me a story from when I was like 8 years old."
Russell had just watched Lady and the Tramp before piano lessons and while her mother was trying to teach her Chekovski, Russell pushed her away."I told her to give me a minute, I wanted to write my own song," Russell said. “I then went on to compose my own song using Chekovski chords with a chorus mentioning the moon over Paris.”
"She said she would never forget that moment because it was the first time that I had amazed her musically," Russell said. "I had used what she had taught me, but I made it completely my own."
After that conversation, Russell still didn't have a name for the band and only 10 minutes remained before the press arrived.
"I was sitting there eating a Luna bar and just looked at the wrapper," she said. "Then it hit me! Paris Luna... I yelled at Kane in the next room, he liked it, I called the promoter and the rest is history.
"I remember walking in and seeing the promo poster for the first time thinking 'God, that's a good name.'"
Paris Luna was building a name for itself in Nashville in 2007, just after the release of the band's first album, "City Lights."
"We were touring all over, had a meeting with some Nashville bigwigs and then I found out I was pregnant," Russell said. "My mind was so centered on being famous back then and to be honest I was mad when I found out. It was God knowing that I never would have quit Paris Luna on my own to have a family."
Paris Luna toured up until the seventh month of Russell's pregnancy, and she still remembers that last show.
"I was huge and you could see Harrison move in my belly when Kane would play the drums," she said. "But I thought I could totally pull it off... After that night Kane said we might need to break for a bit."
Though she did try to make it back after Harrison was born, Russell faced new obstacles.
"I had such a fever to get back in it after Harrison was born," she said. "It seemed like it was the scarlet letter just because I had a kid. Doors were closing because I had a family and in their eyes I couldn't just leave.
"I almost gave up when Hudson was born. I had resigned myself to teaching. My spirit was broken, not because of the babies but it was a transition. Because being a mama and being the lead person for a band didn't mix for me then. I had tried to do the festival thing and it just didn't work.”
But, a parent of one of her students encouraged her to try again.
"He was a fan and told me how everyone loved Paris Luna. He said I should try again," Russell remembered. "So, we played a gig that we probably shouldn't have but when we got on stage it electrified. I was hooked again."
Paris Luna is climbing the musical ladder of success once again, but the group carries a slightly different mindset this time around.
"This is what I love. I am making the best of who I am and just believe that people will take notice," Russell said. "I have my children to thank for that!"
People are taking notice. In 2012 Paris Luna won the Georgia Music Award for Best Rock Female and has opened for Kenny Chesney, Sheryl Crow, and Phillip Phillips among other artists.
“If you love something enough and want it enough and give 150 percent of your mind body and soul, you can make it happen!" she said. "That's what I want to tell these girls today... Babies don't have to stop you from achieving what you want out of life. I haven't let them stop me. My babies are part of me and part of this business now. They love music and can't wait to be part of the band when they get bigger. "
Girl Scouts for Life
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Summer 2014
For sisters Lori Sewell and Robin Thornhill, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America provided more than just a chance to earn merit badges and sell boxes of cookies. The organization gave them lifelong friends and the belief that anything was possible.
"Our mom knew the importance of Girl Scouts and being in a rural area, she wanted us to have as much as we could," Thornhill said. "Girl Scouts was the vehicle that allowed us to explore and become the women we are today."
Founded in Savannah, Ga., in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America empowers girls from all walks of life and instills values such compassion, honesty, fairness, sisterhood and confidence.
"I can't remember a time growing up that I wasn't involved in Girl Scouts," Thornhill said. "I literally was born on the day of a scout meeting."
Lani Steele, Lori and Robin's mother, was only a Girl Scout herself for maybe a year growing up in Iowa. However, she valued what the organization represented and devoted nearly half her life to Girl Scouts.
"She was a scout leader for 20 or 30 years because she believed
in it so much," Thornhill said.
While Lani strongly believed in the importance of Girl Scouts, some of the activities would force her out of her natural element.
"Our mom was very prim and proper," Thornhill said. "She believed you weren't dressed unless you had your nails painted and were wearing earrings. So, you can imagine some of the camping trips and other outdoor activities were not her cup of tea. But, she did them anyway because she wanted us to know that we could do anything the boys could do and didn't ever have to depend on a man for anything."
Robin's love of camping began with Girl Scouts and continues to this day. Her husband and she recently renovated a Volkswagen Westfalia camper. Named "Scout," it is decorated with old Girl Scout and Boy Scout patches, uniforms and
"Scouting was such an important part of our lives that I wanted to honor that," she said.
Girl Scouts also gave Lori and Robin the confidence to be the business women they are today.
"My mom and Lori helped me with my Gold Award (the highest honor for a Girl Scout) project," Robin said. "It was a drama camp and was the first time that the three of us worked on something like that together.
"Fast forward several years, and we open the Ashland Theatre," Robin said. "We like to think that scouting gave us the skills to do what we do."
Lori and Robin's mom passed away last August, but just like the Girl Scouts she continues to be a guiding force in their lives.
"We are still learning little lessons from our mom," Robin said. "As we continue to grow as women and mothers, we realize the reasons behind the things she did and all we can say is 'Mom You Were Right.'"
Robin and Lori are owners of the Historic Ashland Theatre in downtown Ashland, Alabama.
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