Deliverance references notwithstanding, a drive to the river is always made better with banjo music. Good banjo tunes, like good trout streams or musky rivers, find just the right pace, yet still flow and wind toward unexpected places. Few people understand that better than Russell Pedersen, part-time guide and full-time banjo player for the critically acclaimed, Midwest-based bluegrass band, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. In February, Pedersen released a solo album titled, Steal from the Rushes, a record written specifically with anglers in mind. “It’s a time capsule of things I’ve seen and felt on the water,” Pedersen says. “A musical collection of fishing memories.”
Pedersen has a lifetime of those memories to draw from, going back to his youth growing up in Dresser, Wisconsin. Like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, Pedersen taught himself to play banjo on the banks of the St. Croix River, next to a catfish rig. “I spent a lot of time just sitting there with a bell and a bobber,” Pedersen recalls. “It was the perfect time to learn to play the banjo. Boaters would float by and say, ‘We heard you from miles away, thanks for entertaining us out here!'”
He picked up his first fly rod a few years after his first banjo. “From there I’ve just gone down the toilet bowl of everything we all get into,” he says, laughing. “Pike and musky have kind of ruined my life.”
Sometime around 2010, Pedersen and four friends began gigging their way around Wisconsin, playing high-energy, beer-soaked bluegrass to a growing fan base—although none of them can quite remember exactly when they started calling themselves Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. “I think we were all too fucked up in the beginning to remember exactly when the name started,” he says.
The band released its first studio album, Another Round, in 2012, and its notoriety soon spread beyond Wisconsin. They began touring regularly, billed alongside legends of bluegrass such as Del McCoury, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, and many more. They’re playing at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and they’ve graced marquees and stages from Red Rocks Amphitheater—also in Colorado—to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the Fillmore in San Francisco.
With the 2013 release of their second studio album, This Old Town, the influence of their home waters on the band’s music became more apparent, with songs like, “River Rat,” “Bronzeback Shuffle,” “Wisconsin Waters,” “Fishing the Milkyway,” and “5-Foot Sturgeon.”
Angling and music have never been two separate passions for Pedersen. They’ve been inseparable for him since those early days, picking on the banks of the St. Croix. He does much of his songwriting in the car, on the way home from the river—or the next morning, with a cup of coffee and his banjo. In fall 2018 Pedersen began work on his first solo project, pulling together several years’ worth of primarily fishing-themed tunes for a fulllength album titled, Steal from the Rushes. “I can tell you where all of these ideas originated,” he says. “I can tell you the creek, the spot, the day. It’s a nice way to reach back into a memory.”
The twin instrumentals, “A Morning Wade,” and “Dry Fly and Dropper” were both inspired by the same stretch of water; a spring creek in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, where Pedersen now lives. “‘A Morning Wade was written on a cold, frozen morning,” Pedersen remembers.
“But going back there in the summer when the hopper hatch came around, that’s when Dry Fly and Dropper came about.”
“Tributary” is an ode to a small feeder-creek of that same stream in the Driftless, while “Bankrobbers” is about one particular morning in early June, fishing for smallmouth near St. Croix Falls, WI. “The Fever” is Pedersen’s musky anthem, and one of only a handful of songs on the record with lyrics. It’s a tune that took several months—and several guides—to write. Pedersen wrote the banjo parts on the banks of the Lower Wisconsin River, at “Crash Camp”—a multi-day smallmouth float hosted by guide Kyle Zempel, of Black Earth Angling Co. “Russell’s a person who finds inspiration in places like that,” says Zempel. “You can see it in his eyes, and you can hear it in his music.”
Lyrics to “The Fever” came months later, from renowned Wisconsin musky guide Brad Bohen, of Musky Country Outfitters. “Out of nowhere Brad sent me a bunch of lyrics,” says Pedersen. “They were the words I was trying to come up with, but couldn’t conjure myself.”
“I’m a big fan of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades,” says Bohen. “We got to chatting about song lyrics, and I sent him some words that I sometimes sing in the boat, when guiding—like chatter on a baseball diamond.” And with that, Wisconsin had its new musky theme song.
In addition to originals, Pedersen puts his spin on several old-time fiddle tunes, like “Echoes of the Ozarks,” featuring Wisconsin fiddle player Tim Foss. Finally, Steal from the Rushes closes with an a cappella version of “The River Driver Song,” which tells the story of a lumber camp on Wisconsin’s Wolf River—a song Pedersen discovered in the Library of Congress while doing research for the National Park Service.
Music has given Pedersen the opportunity to fish waters all over the country, but he’d still choose his home state of Wisconsin over just about any other destination. “As a human, a musician, and a flyfisherman, it doesn’t get any better. It just doesn’t.”
This summer Pedersen is trying to organize guided outings that combine flyfishing with live music, in the places where he draws his inspiration. “I want to play music for people in the element where I create music.”