Active as a performer and recording artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Johnny Russell was remembered for "Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer," perhaps country music's quintessential blue-collar anthem. He had several other moderate hits, but his greatest legacy was as a successful country songwriter whose compositions were recorded by artists ranging in time from Jim Reeves to George Strait.
Russell was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta's Sunflower County. He heard the Grand Ole Opry as a youngster and was influenced by the music of Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, and Roy Acuff. His family moved to Fresno, CA, when Russell was 11, and he began to dream of a performing career. As a high school student he took steps to realize his dreams — he entered and won various talent contests, and he began writing songs. Soon after turning 18 he recorded his first song, "In a Mansion Stands My Love," in 1958. The single had little impact, but it caught the attention of RCA producer and A&R man Chet Atkins. Atkins suggested to Jim Reeves that he record the song, and it became the B-side of Reeves' monster 1960 hit "He'll Have to Go." That helped establish Russell's reputation as a songwriter, although his recording career on the ABC label went nowhere. Russell's next major triumph came in 1963, when Buck Owens recorded Russell's "Act Naturally" (co-written with Voni Morrison of Owens' backing band) and had a number one hit. Two years later, the Beatles covered the tune with country enthusiast Ringo Starr on vocals.
Russell landed a staff songwriter position at the Wilburn Brothers' publishing house in Nashville, penning several hits in the late '60s and early '70s. These included the Wilburn Brothers' own "Hurt Her Once for Me." In 1971, Russell renewed his effort to become a recording star in his own right, and Atkins signed him to RCA. His debut single, "Mr. and Mrs. Untrue," and its follow-up, "What a Price," both became mid-level hits. Russell had his first Top 20 hit in 1973 with "Catfish John," and later that year "Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer" peaked in the Top Five and became his biggest hit. He had six more hits through 1975, including "Hello I Love You". In 1977, he finished his stint at RCA with six more mid-range hits, including "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp." He continued to find success as a songwriter, however, teaming once again with Morrison for the Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton duet "Making Plans." Russsell adapted his honky tonk themes to the MOR sound that flourished around 1980. With Wayland Holyfield he co-wrote the major Statler Brothers hit "You'll Be Back Every Night (In My Dreams)," and he wrote or had a hand in such familiar numbers of that era as Gene Watson's "Got No Reason Now (For Going Home)" and the young George Strait's "Let's Fall to Pieces Together."
His untimely death at the age of 61 was due to complications surrounding diabetes.