Student and aspiring singer-songwriter

Last August, Robert Wilson Russ IV – or “Russ” as his friends call him – got the urge to stop by a local bar in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The bar, Phil Brady’s, was known for hosting live music.

“I just felt I needed to go sing in front of people,” Russ said.

After a stressful situation with an ex-girlfriend and his junior year of college soon approaching, Russ thought performing live would be just the perfect remedy to alleviate his angst.

Russ approached the bartender with confidence and asked if there were any openings for him to play in the near future but was told all the usual nights were booked. Itching to sing, Russ suggested the following Wednesday night and although the bar typically wasn’t open on Wednesdays, the owner agreed to open the doors just for him on the condition that Russ would assure him of getting at least 15 people to show up.

Russ invited friends and family. His show certainly exceeded his promise, when over 100 people showed up to the bar to watch him perform that night.

“[The bar owner] told me it was the most people they’ve had there since the beginning of COVID,” Russ explained. “It was a random Wednesday night, too, so that was nice to hear.”

Born in Mobile, Alabama before moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the age of four, Russ grew up where country music was a very prevalent genre. When Russ was about eight years old, before music streaming services, he listened to the same few downloaded songs by Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean on repeat. These hits like “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Rain Is A Good Thing” are songs which he still holds dear to him today.

He took piano lessons as a kid and bought a basic guitar in high school as a ploy to impress a girl who knew how to play, but he wouldn’t get around to learning it until later.

During his sophomore year of college in the spring of 2021 while sharing a bedroom in SMU’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, Russ picked up the guitar for the first time with the actual intention to play. Quickly, he taught himself with a little help from the internet along with a healthy dose of God-given talent.

That same spring semester at a Dallas pub where his fraternity was hosting an event, Russ was goaded on stage by one of his fraternity brothers. The fraternity had hired well-known Americana Rock and Roll artist Austin Meade to perform at the event. This was Russ’s first time singing in front of a crowd, and he was opening for a legit professional.

He took the stage feeling nervous at first, but after one song, he was hooked.

After experiencing further success in Baton Rouge at the end of summer, Russ returned to school craving another live performance. He ended up contacting a classic SMU bar, Barley House, and booked himself on a Thursday afternoon to play live.

Russ's poster for his performance at Barley House.
Russ's poster for his performance at Barley House. Photo credit: Wilson Russ

“I had just written my first duet and I was looking for someone to sing it with me,” Russ said.

He asked around and someone mentioned to him another SMU junior, Tandis Esfandiari.

“I actually ran into her on the Boulevard and mentioned it, but in the end, I didn’t get her number,” Russ said regretfully.

As the show was approaching, Russ decided to direct message Esfandiari on Instagram asking if she would sing with him.

“I don’t usually check my Instagram DMs, however, I checked them around 30 minutes before the show and saw a message from him. He was asking if I was interested and I replied with my number,” Esfandiari said. “I met up with him and we had 20 minutes to learn the songs and perform. It was super random but definitely a great last minute decision!”

Russ and Tandis
A poster for Russ and Esfandiari's performance last semester. Photo credit: Wilson Russ

The two are now in a relationship and have their musical passions to thank for it. Esfandiari even got him his first electric guitar as a birthday gift in January.

Russ is having fun playing electric guitar and learning the difference from acoustic. Russ owns four guitars and his favorite is his Gibson Special Edition Southern Jumbo, the same guitar country stars Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs play.

When Russ returned home for Christmas break, he was asked to play five nights straight at different bars around Baton Rouge.

“It was pretty tough coming right off finals plus never doing that before, and I was playing a three hour frame. It’s a lot, it was hard to maintain. I was taking cough medicine and cough drops every night,” Russ said.

His dedication and hard work paid off. One of those nights he earned $700 in tips alone. He used the money he earned that week to purchase better quality equipment.

As Russ launches his music career, he is also an honors scholar with a double major and three minors. He plans on earning an MBA degree in business after completion of his undergraduate degree and is in training with a Dallas Cowboys coaches to possibly play football in graduate school.

Russ looks forward to recording in the near future and will soon release his first EP.

He typically writes about two songs a day and has written over 150 songs so far. Esfandiari shared that she is always impressed and inspired by his songwriting skills.

“He will randomly be sitting on the couch and will come up with songs. I always find myself asking ‘who wrote that’ or ‘what’s the name of that song’ to add it to my playlists and his response is ‘I just wrote it’” Esfandiari said. “[His songs] are always super catchy and have an amazing hook.”

Whether he ends up making it big in the industry or just playing music because it’s something he loves to do, Russ has no intention to stop singing and songwriting.

“It brings joy to people and helps them through life if the song relates,” Russ said.