My favorite Gregg Russell story is about a flip-flop.
As the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing tees off for the 48th time this week, Russell begins his 40th year of performing beneath the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town.
His evening shows of guitar strumming and chitchat with vacationing children have long since become a Hilton Head Island institution. Some of the children who sat on his knees are now bringing their grandchildren to the oak by the marina.
One of them showed up on stage wearing one flip-flop.
Russell remarked that the child had lost a flip-flop.
“No I didn’t,” the kid blurted. “I found one.”
That’s a nice philosophy.
But it’s also the unfiltered beauty of a child.
It’s the stuff that formed an unexpected career for a singer who arrived on Hilton Head in 1977 for a two-week gig. Russell says he had $35 in his pocket and slept in a Chevy van behind Gene Martin’s Red & White grocery store in Coligny Plaza.
Russell says he knows he’s not the greatest singer or guitar player.
“My whole life has been what happens between the songs,” Russell said. “The stories. The jokes. Anyone can sing and play. What people are looking for is a piece of you.”
Russell comes from a musical family, but he taught himself to play guitar.
He credits early performances at Walt Disney World with teaching him the magic of engaging people and getting them to interact.
On Hilton Head, he found himself playing for more than four hours a night to people milling around Harbour Town. He was background music until he asked a child to sing. People slowly began to stop and pay attention. He filled that first summer with a series of two-week engagements.
After that, he was advertised as part of the Sea Pines experience.
And for the second summer, a little stage had been built beneath the Liberty Oak.
Two men encouraged him, Russell said.
One was Gene Martin, who he suspects was the person leaving sandwiches and chips on the seat of his van.
The other was Charles Fraser, the founder of Sea Pines whose vision of the world is best seen at Harbour Town, especially this week.
“Charles loved nothing more than seeing the red rocking chairs filled and kids running around and people coming on bicycles,” Russell said.
He said Fraser gave him a place to live at Harbour Town.
“So I moved up there, and it gave me freedom and the jump-start I needed to start my career.”
Years later, he would get a photo emailed from proud parents.
It showed a kid sitting in Russell’s chair, playing his guitar. The parents said it jump-started the boy’s career. His name was Brad Paisley.
Harbour Town hasn’t been the only gig for Russell.
He has cut a number of albums and performed at winter resorts, on a thousand Carnival cruises and hundreds of college campuses.
Fraser once asked him to write a song about Hilton Head. Russell called it “Come Away Home,” and it morphed into a movie filmed on Hilton Head.
He did a movie called “Camp Tanglefoot” that he said fit his life.
“I was always the camp counselor kind of guy sitting around the campfire at night, strumming the guitar,” Russell said. “The guitar opened doors for me. It’s a natural extension of who I am.”
It opened the doors to Hollywood, where he is a producer and co-writer of scripts, including a World War II movie now in the works about the guys who parachuted into Normandy before zero hour on D-Day.
Hilton Head became home for two of Russell’s siblings — Guy Malool who sells real estate, and Sissy Malool who was a pillar of the tennis community and now works nationwide for the USTA. Their parents also moved here and are buried at Six Oaks in Sea Pines.
Russell and his wife Lindy reared two girls on the island. One is now in show business in New York City, and the other is in Denver saving the planet one animal at a time, he said.
Another part of the family is Randy White, who has run the Russell shows at Harbour Town for 31 years.
Gregg and Lindy Russell started the Hilton Head Heroes charity 15 years ago to bring children suffering from a life-threatening illness and their families to Hilton Head for a free, week-long resort vacation.
Russell said it goes back to Gene Martin and Charles Fraser, who gave to him when they did not have to.
As Russell starts his 40th season at Harbour Town, Fraser’s bust sits on the other side of the Liberty Oak, where he is buried.
Russell carries on, saying, “Let’s face it. I’m a great babysitter. My job is to be the straight man for the kids.”
He also says, “I won the lottery. It’s that simple.”
And on the journey, Sea Pines found its flip-flop.