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Bering Strait stays on course

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 2005

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Bering Strait started making trips to the U.S. by 1994, playing at the International Bluegrass Music Associa-tion (IBMA) event.

It was there that they first met Douglas. Bering Strait was at the venue where Douglas and his group rehearsed for an awards ceremony. "We started to play their song," says Ostrovsky. He came to me and standing and looking at me playing his song," Ostrovsky recalls, laughing, saying Douglas told him, "'You sound just like me'."

"He gave me his Dobro to play at the award show," Ostrovsky says. "I could not believe that. We've been friends ever since."

Around this time, the band split with Gvozdev. It was not a friendly split. "You could say that," Ostrovsky says.

"We didn't have any instruments at all," says Ostrovsky. "We were trying to get guitars and all of that. We called Jerry Douglas to see if he could help us get something. He just gave me one of his guitars. That was amazing. I could not believe it."

Bering Strait also benefited from performing in a restaurant in Russia that an American art dealer, Ray Johnson, happened to venture in one night. He wasn't looking to hear music, but once he did, he told a friend upon his return to the U.S. Johnson also bankrolled visits by the musicians to the U.S.

The band came to the U.S. for the long haul in about 1997. After all, if a band is going to play country music, there is not a big market for that in Russia.

Eventually, the band settled in Nashville. "It was a struggle, " Ostrovsky says. "We had a very bad name at the time, which is not worth mentioning. We needed something new and fresh."

With input from a friend, they settled on Bering Strait, which reminded them of the gulf they were trying to bridge between the U.S. and Russia (The Bering Strait divides the two countries). along with a nod to Dire Straits, one of the group's favorite bands.

"We're trying to go cross over between our nations," says Ostrovsky. "Being one world, not being two different parts of the world, but the music is what connects."

They secured a development deal with Sony, but that did not lead to a full-fledged contract. They signed with Arista in 1999, but the label eventually folded in a consolidation with the contract going to parent company RCA.

One problem that afflicted Bering Strait was that because of their visas, they were unable to do any work except to play as musicians.

But their record labels did not want them to play live until they had a CD to sell.

With no money coming in and not supporting themselves, the band found themselves sacking out at the Nashville home of manager Mike Kinnamon with little to do.

Kinnamon wondered how he was going to survive as well as he poured his own money into the venture, coming close to losing his home and farm.

Kinnamon, 56 in mid-July, had previously managed rock bands, but was then a contractor. A friend who used to work with Bering Strait called him and "told me they were kind of in trouble."

"Eight years ago, they were a whole lot cuter than they were today. When you walk into the studio, and you hear these kids, they're smoking and they can barely speak English, and they come up and hug on you, you think, how can I not do this?"

Eventually, the band got its chance to play out, doing its first U.S. show ever opening in the summer of 2001 for Trisha Yearwood at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., a moment captured in the documentary about Bering Strait, "The Ballad of Bering Strait," which successfully captures the unique ups and downs of the band, with downs including almost throwing in the towel.

Shortly thereafter, Universal South released the single "Jagged Edge of a Broken Heart," but more heartache resulted because two weeks into it, despite having shot a video, which can be expensive, the label pulled back on promoting the single.

The wait continued, but the album eventually did come out in January 2003, and right beforehand, Bering Strait received a Grammy nomination for best country single for "Bearing Straight."

The album did well sales-wise considering no radio play. "We were touring for all this time on the road, 2 1/2 years," says Ostrovsky.

A by-product of the group getting out more was that they eventually left the friendly confines of Kinnamon's house, although an apartment fire severely damaged the dwelling of several band members.

Ostrovsky was the last of Bering Strait to leave Kinnamon's house, making the address change in mid-June.

With a new album, don't think Bering Strait now has it made. Kinnamon says he has three foreclosure letters on his table right now.

"You watch the movie and think 'oh my gosh, you think you're in a better place'," he says via cellphone while en route to Illinois. "It's much much rougher now because it costs more money now to stay out on the bus than it did then."

"We never had one day of airplay of radio on the first one, but we sold 150,000 units. Now, we have a little bit of airplay already, but if the single (a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Lovin' Fun") takes off, it'll change our lives. It may take 8 to 14 months, but it will change our lives."

"If I hadn't hung in there with them, they would have had to go back to Russia," says Kinnamon. "They're just too good."

Ostrovsky hopes the Russian novelty aspect is history. "Fans accept us for who we are as musicians. It's pretty much (by) people who don't know anything about us and just heard about us. We're just a novelty, and they don't know what kind of music we do. I see things written about us who never heard our record - a bluegrass band from Russia."

"That's why we're hoping with this record we're going to show people who we actually are and with a commercial single will put this story to an end - like the bluegrass story - and finally people will know us for who we are."

"We are a country band. We're on a country label, and if I had to put a genre mark next to us that would be country, but in the big picture, it's just music. It has some country roots in it, but it can be as rock and pop as it can go and with a bluegrass flavor."

Salnikova is nervously hopeful. "I'm trying to celebrate this stage of it and whatever happens happens. We're going to do our shows promoting it. I'm just thrilled to have it out. Just think it's been a long road since the record. I think we've grown a lot and changed a lot. I'm just really proud of this record. Truly. I have an emotional attachment to it. I listen to it frequently. You'd think after listening to it a thousand times, you wouldn't want to. That's a good sign to me."

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