One hand Dan, the blues man: local musician opens up about life
By Kasey Hullett | Contributing WriterBy Kasey Hullett | 11/12/2015 8:13am
Dan Russell, known as "One Hand Dan," learned how to play the guitar with one hand. Photo courtesy of Dan Russell
On a flat concrete bench, he plays a guitar made out of a cigar box.
His right leg has a bright pink bear tattooed on the calf, with one lazy eye. His left arm has a sailor-jerry-style letter with the words “Dear Mom” on the flap. His right arm has a pinup girl, covered in the Stars and Stripes. His dark green camouflage shorts are ripped around the thighs and his black shoes stomp the ground to the beat. His black hair stands in spikes and a thin beard shadows his face. While he plays, sometimes he closes his eyes and tightens his lips. His white plastic foam bucket has only a few coins in it. His right hand slides effortlessly up and down the neck of the three-stringed instrument.
He plays the strings with a pick tied to the one-jointed thumb of his nub.
They call him “One Hand Dan.”
“A lot of people think I’m homeless playing guitar on the street,” Dan Russell said. “I’m not. I just like to play for people, and I need to make some money doing it. I survive my lifestyle because I’m ADD and I drink a lot of coffee.”
Dan, 30, grew up in Tuscumbia, Alabama. As a teenager, he decided he wanted to be a professional wrestler. Out in the middle of nowhere, he and his friends built a ring. Lounging in lawn chairs, underage kids would drink and smoke cigarettes. In the ring, two scrawny wrestlers would beat each other senseless. They would pass around a bucket to buy tables to break. He drove to his first professional show and lied about his age.
“I lied to The Honkytonk Man,” Dan said. “You know the guy in the World Wrestling Federation? He was the one that dressed as an Elvis impersonator.”
He worked at McDonald’s to pay for his costume. With a Rey Mysterio mask and sweatpants, he took the ring at the age of 16. Within the first five minutes, he was beaten to a pulp.
“I only had one hand, so usually people would break it or smash it,” Dan said. “I thought it was the coolest thing to get ‘powerbombed’ by Sycho Sid. At least I got beat up by the big stars.”
After working more than five different day jobs and traveling to Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky by night, he decided that it just wasn’t worth it. So he quit wrestling and moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after high school. He moved in with a couple of guys in his graduating class. It was a hopeless situation.
“My trailer was so bad that it use to lean,” Dan said. “If my roommate had friends over, we used to have to spread them out so the whole thing wouldn’t tip over. We didn’t have light switches; you had to use pliers to turn the light on and off.”
At one point, he traded some bootleg films for a guitar. He had always wanted to learn how to play. His uncle was a town legend at the slide guitar. However, as soon as he put the strings on it, the neck broke. He was mad and gave up on the idea of playing for a while.
Dan finally hit rock bottom. He was barely making his car payment and flat out didn’t make the rent sometimes. He sold pot and bootleg movies out of his trailer and was stealing internet from his neighbors. He dated strippers and girls that did things just for a hot shower and a bed.
“I was really depressed,” Dan said. “I didn’t even have a pair of shoes. I had these old shoes that my entire foot would fall out of the front. At work, my feet would get soaked every night. I wanted to get out of town. I wanted something better for my life.”
Then he met his future wife at Hancock Fabrics.
He and his friends still wrestled out in a ring they constructed behind the trailer. So he and his tag team partner went in and bought leopard-print spandex. The older ladies there laughed at him. However, there was a girl in there cutting fabric. She was wearing a “Star Wars” shirt and a vest. She giggled as he wrapped the spandex around himself to see if it was enough fabric. A week later, they went on a date.
“We went walking on our first date, and I still didn’t have any shoes,” Dan said. “So I took her to a fast food place and overdrafted my bank account buying her french fries. I knew that when I met my wife, it would be better. She was everything I ever wanted.”
She pulled Dan out of that life. He was able to get a job at Eberspaecher, an auto exhaust manufacturer for Mercedes-Benz. He worked 60 hours a week, Monday through Friday. He finally had time to learn how to play the guitar.
At first, he was booed off stage at an open mic night in Muscle Shoals. He would play at every opportunity he could, trying to get better every time.
“Eventually I got a fan base of drunks at bars on a Wednesday night,” Dan said.
Then one night at an open mic night, a man named Billy Smart came up to him and told him that he liked his music. He would play guitar with him after that and make Dan sound great. Then, somebody invested in him to make a professional studio album of his blues. He called Billy to play guitar for him, his cousin to play drums and a few others to play with him.
Harrison Wallace plays bass for him around town. He met him at the local Green Bar’s Open Mic night.
“He has a one-of-a-kind personality,” Wallace said. “He improvises on the spot. He’ll see somebody walk by and will start to sing about them. His instruments are unique folk culture guitars. He strives for tonal clarity and a blues-folk sound.”
Neal Alexander met him two years ago while collaborating with him on an event at Green Bar called “Out of the Box.” Alexander is a visual artist.
“You know, the police ran him off The Strip to downtown ‘cause he was so loud,” Alexander said. “This guy has a love of for the blues. He never meets a stranger. When you meet him, you know you just made a friend. His drive to continually get better is always there.”
Dan tries to book a lot of shows at once. Sometimes he will get off on Friday night then get up the next morning to play at an arts festival, then at a guitar shop in the afternoon, then at a bar that night. He tries to do that for the three days.
Today, he has six or seven folk instruments that a local artist made for him. Most of them are cigar boxes with pickups, humbuckers and strings attached to a makeshift neck. One of them is made out of a license plate. Another has three necks that he can quickly switch between.
“Just because somebody doesn’t have money doesn’t mean you don’t play for them,” Dan said. “They are so happy that they are being played to.”