Born in Four Oaks, North Carolina, Russell Johnson was 10 years old when he heard his older brother picking bluegrass songs with a friend at his family's picnic table. Smitten, the young musician received his first guitar as a Christmas gift that same year and, armed with rudimentary knowledge of chords, spent the next several years learning to play. By the time he was enrolled as a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill, Johnson had begun to play the mandolin at area jam sessions, and in 1989 he founded the New Vintage Bluegrass Band. Under his direction, the group performed throughout the United States and Canada and released five acclaimed albums on Pinehurst Records, in the process winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist Award, Pizza Hut's International Bluegrass Showdown, and SPBGMA's National Band Award. In 2000, Johnson left New Vintage to focus on the Grass Cats, a group he founded with musicians Tim Woodall and Chris Hill in 1997.
Since their inception, the Grass Cats have released seven albums--four of which have landed in Bluegrass Unlimited's Top 10--and maintain a busy touring schedule with gigs at the Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival, Raleigh's Got to Be NC Festival, the Lazy Daze Festival in Cary, and the North Carolina State Fair.
Johnson recently rejoined New Vintage and, in collaboration with banjo player Barney Rogers, released When the Bands Played, a collection of songs inspired by the American Civil War. Johnson is also performing with Diamond Creek, a band that has been around since 2006 but was on hiatus until early in 2013. That year, Diamond Creek won the 2013 "Got to be NC" Bluegrass Band competition. The current band's mix of younger members with some seasoned veterans of the North Carolina Bluegrass scene brings a freshness and energy to their songs, arrangements and performances. Though it's a second band for most of them, it’s still a home for them to come back to and play the traditional bluegrass music they love.