Charlie, "Stubby" & Rick Russell
"Passing on the pipes”
Byline: Laura Yuen, Pioneer Press
Aug. 10--Drive past the Menards and the Pineda Tacos and the Wal-Mart, and follow your ears. Right beside the Clean 'N' Press, a parking lot in West St. Paul is crying.
A circle of bagpipers floats the deedle-deedle-dum of Celtic melancholy every Tuesday evening. Just when the sun sets over the SuperTarget, they pipe songs about elusive maidens and dead heroes.
One of the men who founded the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band in 1962 sits on a stoop of a nearby business and listens.
"It stirs you," said Chuck "Stubby" Russell, 79, tapping his heart.
The ragtag crew that Russell organized has endured for 45 years in the face of high turnover and warring factions. The Minneapolis man retired a couple of years ago because of Parkinson's disease and back problems.
Yet it's largely volunteers like Russell who have fueled the survival of Brian Boru and, with it, a piece of Irish tradition in Minnesota. He and other veteran members have taught dozens of students how to play the pipes for free.
"If you charge them, you'll drive them away," he said.
The band is a crowd favorite at the Irish Fair of Minnesota, which begins today on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Dozens of newcomers sign up for lessons after seeing the pipers perform at the festival.
Unlike Scottish pipe bands that sport tartans, the Brian Boru crew -- named after the 11th century Irish king -- proudly wears the black and saffron kilts of the Irish army.
At the bars on St. Patrick's Day, the musicians have been goosed by silver-haired ladies. They also have a ready supply of salty responses when asked, "What's under the skirt?"
But it's the annual August festival that marks the band's high recruiting season.
After a few lessons, though, most novice pipers quit.
"Maybe we get one out of 15 who stick with it and become a member of the band," said pipe major John McCormick, who lives on St. Paul's West Side. "It's a lot of work."
McCormick, who works as an insulator, started playing the pipes when he was 12. His father hooked him up with a friend in St. Paul's Irish-American community who knew how to play.
At the time, it was even less cool than today for boys to wear skirts.
"My parents were proud of me, and they would always tell people, 'My son plays the bagpipe,' " he said. "I would say, 'Don't bring that up! I want to make friends.' "
McCormick began seriously studying the pipes three years ago, when he had the maturity and motivation to keep at it.
The bagpipe is a bear of an instrument. For the first year or so, most students learn on a practice chanter -- similar to a recorder -- without picking up the real bagpipe. The rookie piper might be able to play just one tune. Some never play any.
"It's an instrument you've got to beat into submission," Russell said with a laugh.
Players must juggle complex fingering, steady blowing and the squeezing of the bag, making for an exhausting upper-body workout. A beginning student can sound dreadful -- and there's no way to hide it, given the blaring drone the pipes produce.
The idea for Minnesota's longest-surviving Irish bagpipe band started in a bar. Russell, then a social worker, was knocking back a few with his buddies, and someone got the idea of forming the group.
"One guy says, 'Yeah, but how we gonna learn?' " Russell recalled.
They found a teacher in John Ford, then a Macalester College teacher and director of its pipe band. Under Ford's instruction, the fledgling posse hammered out horrendous notes.
But they persevered, mostly because of the fellowship. Parents have brought their children, including Russell's son, Charlie. The group is made up mostly of men, ranging from teens to retirees.
"We just added a guy here, a guy there, and it's been 45 years," Russell said.
The band plays in the West St. Paul parking lot, where one member owns a business that makes Irish-themed merchandise.
Like any fraternity, though, the band has experienced some drama and even threats of extinction. Some pipers have splintered from the group as they sought a more competitive playing level.
McCormick, 43, became pipe major at 17 after one infamous split. The band grew large again, and then there was another split.
Today, about 20 pipers and drummers make up the crew, with an additional 10 or so students being groomed to join.
"All we expect is that people work hard," McCormick said. "It's important to me to pass it on, in the same way it was passed on to me."