It is unlikely the Southern Baptist Church in East Tennessee where Zach Russell grew up will be singing the songs from his debut full-length album, “Where the Flowers Meet the Dew.” The mysticism weaving through the roots-Americana project would be too “out-there” for even those with far less rigid theologies. But if they lean in and listen, they may find hints of their DNA all over the 10-song collection.
I recently spoke with Russell about the album, his childhood in the church and the journey that led him to a more expansive spirituality and worldview.
Because of the mystical feel of “Where the Flowers Meet the Dew,” I entered the conversation assuming he came from a Pentecostal background. “Yeah, the music may have some Pentecostal roots, I’m not sure,” Russell said.
When I noted the dividing line between Pentecostalism and mysticism is far more porous than its adherents would like to admit, he agreed and expressed an affinity for those traditions.
“I always found myself fascinated by those spaces. Although I’m not actively attending church anymore, I still remember those ‘goosebump’ services,” adding, “There’s a spirit there that I still find myself attached to. The emotion and energy still stick with me.”
One of Russell’s earliest musical influences was the Baptist hymnal he grew up singing from. Any doubts I may have had of his Southern Baptist roots were vanquished when he told me the size of the congregation.
“I went to the same church my mamaw had been going to since she was a younger lady,” he said. “I was in that church until I was 18 or 19. Our membership was around 120, but that’s just reflective of who had their letters there.”
For the uninitiated, a reference to “letters” may sound confusing when talking about the size of a church. The practice of signing a “letter of transfer” harkens back to the pioneer days, when Christians moving from town to town needed their home congregations to vouch for them when they joined a new one. The prior congregation would send a sealed letter with the congregant to present to the new one. In many rural Baptist churches, “letter” is still synonymous with “membership.”
Russell’s letter may still reside in that old church (I didn’t ask.). Still, his journey has taken him to Murfreesboro to attend Middle Tennessee State University, Nashville, where he spent several years in odd jobs while dreaming of becoming a Music Row songwriter, and back to Clinton in East Tennessee, a few miles from where he grew up.
His spiritual journey, however, took him much further east.
After struggling with the theodicy question, wondering how a good God could allow things like the slow deterioration of grandparents to Alzheimer’s, he says he “spent a few years as a full-blown atheist, just kind of angry all the time.”
Russell remembered that, up to that point, “The only images of Christians I had seen were a lot of Baptists who had a view of things that just didn’t work for me.”
Much of his anger, however, began to dissipate when he discovered the writings of Ram Dass, the American spiritual teacher who imported the ideas of Eastern religions to wider audiences in the West. This allowed him to see the Christianity of his childhood with more tender eyes.
“I realized that to believe in Christianity, you don’t have to disbelieve other people’s faith,” he said. “It’s all the same path.”
After toying with becoming a Buddhist for a while, he realized he already had an “established set of stories and iconographies,” noting, “It ultimately comes down to the fact that, when you are telling a story, you can only tell your story.”
A part of Zach Russell’s story familiar to many who grew up in fundamentalist churches is a fear of hell.
“My earliest memories are filled with what I now know were panic attacks,” he said. “You know, you can think you’re saved, but then a preacher can make you doubt it by questioning whether you prayed a prayer at the right time.”
This would bring him many sleepless nights as a child. When he would wake his mom up in tears, he would be too ashamed to tell her why. When reflecting on this, he noted that “the ‘born again’ language caused me a lot of harm.”
Eventually, this would become the muse for “Born Again,” one of the signature songs on the album. Speaking about crafting the part honky-tonk, part psychedelic response to an insistent preacher, he said, “I started thinking about being born again in a different way. Things like the idea I heard years ago of ‘dying daily.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, it’s like committing to starting anew every day.”
That thought germinated for about a decade.
“And then I started thinking about being ‘born again’ in our interactions and conversations with one another, about how they all change us and stick with us and make us a new person moving forward,” he said.
He then weaved in the Eastern element: “Also, when we die, at the very least, our body and meat go back into things and become something else, just as it has become something else in us.”
Adherents of all types of faith, and none at all, will find resonance with the album.
Quick to quote Wendell Berry alongside Dass and Rob Bell, Russell speaks with fondness and fascination for his native Appalachia: “The older I got and the more I read about the area’s history, I have learned that at one point there was all kinds of folk magic practiced in these parts. What I’ve experienced is just a window of the culture.”
He added that “the original settlers were wild types of people…Foggy mountains full of life on every inch draw those types of people. And that used to be a part of folks’ Christianity.”
“Where the Flowers Meet the Dew” is full of hard-earned wisdom from Russell. Other stand-out tracks include “Take Me Back to Tennessee,” Russell’s take on the longing for home, and “What I Know Now,” a grace-filled reflection on humility and the passing of time.
Listeners looking for comparisons will make natural connections to the country-psychedelic fusion of Sturgill Simpson or the mountain sounds of Tyler Childers. (Russell worked as Childers’ merchandising manager on the road.)
But I would suggest a closer musical relative is Kris Kristofferson, the legendary songwriter whose tunes cover the spiritual ground between this world and the next with deep emotional range.
“Where the Flowers Meet the Dew” was produced by Kyle Cronwover and released by Thirty Tigers on December 1, 2023.
Senior editor at Good Faith Media.