Writing a patriotic tune is a tricky business. There is always the danger of sounding jingoistic or smug when the intent is to be inspirational.
For Maricopa singer-songwriter Russ Marsh, penning red, white and blue songs has been a career mainstay and a natural outflow of his beliefs. It was an organic process that developed from his abiding love of country and came to fruition during his days in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He penned a couple of tunes that were decidedly nationalistic during the divisive Vietnam War years. By the luck of the draw, he was stationed stateside as a lance corporal while friends were sent to Vietnam. Caught up in the national conversation about the U.S. Constitution, he felt inspired to write “Keepers of the Flame.”
“We are the keepers, keepers of the flame,
Can we pass the torch tomorrow, and will they know what it means?”
While his country songs are often playful or lovelorn, his patriotic music can be a tutorial for those not brought up with knowledge of American symbolism or even proper flag etiquette.
“There is a lot of meaning that goes with our symbols,” he says.
When the American flag was desecrated in a viral video, Marsh posted his own video on YouTube, challenging others to create selfie videos of why the flag is important to them. For himself, it was a song that had become a staple of his repertoire, “Don’t Tread on Old Glory.”
“Lookin’ back through the years there was blood, sweat and tears fightin’ for Old Glory.
So many have died keeping freedom alive, don’t lose Old Glory.”
“It is his way to express his love for the flag and to educate through the social media,” says Cathy Marsh, his wife of four years.
A songwriter from his youth when he was influenced by Hank Snow and Elvis Presley, Marsh served with the Marines from 1969 to 1970 and returned home to his father’s Utah farm to work. Even with a growing family of his own at home, his restless spirit kept drawing him away, as he played gigs around the country and tried to find his niche.
Marsh recorded some tunes and also ended up rubbing elbows with some big names in country music. He ultimately rubbed elbows with a big name in the country – the President of the United States.
With his country/folk songs of the 1970s, he shared a variety of stages with Hank Thompson, Mel Tillis, Tex Williams and Marty Robbins. Of the latter, he says, “He was so kind and good even to me.” By chance in the studio at the time, Marsh was lucky enough to hear a reel-to-reel version of El Paso City before it was recorded.
Marsh got enough attention from his patriotic tunes that he was asked to write a song for the bicentennial year of 1976. “But nothing seemed to come together,” he says.
In 1977, “America Forever” finally found form. That earned him an invitation to perform for President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter at the White House.
“He was nice. She was really nice,” Marsh says.
“America Forever, forever you will see –
The stars and stripes forever
In the land of liberty.”
In the meantime, Marsh’s minor celebrity status in Utah took an odd and unforeseen detour that connected him to death row inmate Gary Gilmore.
Country music station KSOP in Salt Lake City kept Marsh’s music on its playlist. One of those songs was the ballad “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind” from 1976. As Gilmore’s execution date drew near, the KSOP general manager informed Marsh that Gilmore was a fan of the song, getting prison staff to call in and request it.
Gilmore would become the first man in 10 years to be executed in the United States. On the evening of his death by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977, Gilmore again asked the staff to call in his musical request, and again it was “Walking in the Footsteps of Your Mind.”
“When the wind kissed the water and the waves took you away,
Now I’m drowning from the memories of today.”
Author Norman Mailer referenced the song in his account of the evening in “The Executioner’s Song,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
“I had mixed emotions about the whole thing,” Marsh says.
The attention in the middle of national debate on the death penalty boosted the radio play of his song locally and across the country.
Marsh had grown up playing music with his siblings. More recently he performed with his grown children as the band Marsh.
But music is a different industry now and getting airplay isn’t as simple as bringing in a reel-to-reel for a radio station manager to listen to. Marsh says there was far less politics involved before it became so commercial.
“It didn’t matter who you were, they treated each other the same, especially in country music,” Marsh says. “You felt more free, and you at least had the opportunity to send in your songs.”
These days he’s found a place on the Digital Music Registry and the Indie Charts. He has also settled into Maricopa and made his own home studio. This month, on its first week, “We’re American Made” was No. 50 on the National Airplay Top 50 Country Chart. It was also No. 8 the National Top Independent and No. 170 on the National Top 200 Chart.
He was living in San Tan Valley when he met Cathy online at LDSPlanet.com. Both had been hesitant about the concept. Living in Malaysia, divorced with two children, Cathy had a plan to avoid the weirdoes and scammers and other hazards of online dating.
“I prayed and I felt inspired to formulate 48 questions they had to answer,” she says. “That was pretty good screening.” After a year without finding anyone with that kind of fortitude, she left the site. She did not know her page stayed up.
At the same time, a friend of Russ sent him to the site to look at a particular person’s profile. Russ didn’t feel the sparks there but scrolled over a couple of other profiles and discovered Cathy. He made contact. She sent her questions.
In 48 hours he sent back her 48 questions.
“I thought, ‘Oops, this is unexpected,’” Cathy says. A correspondence began, and Cathy looked up his music. She says she fell for his music first.
“I really connect with the music,” she says. “I felt his music really had to be heard.”
Russ wrote Cathy a love song that ended up on one of his albums, “I Never Knew Love Until I Met You.”
“I never knew love could be so true
Until I fell in love with you”
One of his three albums, “A-M-E-R-I-C-A,” is a compilation of mostly patriotic tunes, from his time in the Marines to his still fervent flag-waving sentiments of today.
“I’ve worked as a farmer and I’ve had other jobs making countertops and cabinets,” Marsh says, “but I’ve got to do this music.”