Born in Moorhead, Mississippi, he moved with his family at age 11 to Fresno, California, where he began writing songs and entering talent contests while still in high school, graduating in 1958. He had his first song published that year, In a Mansion Stands My Love, which was recorded by Jim Reeves as the "B" side of his 1960 hit He'll Have to Go.
His recording of his song Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer was his only top 10 hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles chart in October 1973. The song was nominated later that year for a Grammy Award. Russell is also known for hits such as The Baptism of Jesse Taylor, Catfish John, and Hello, I Love You.
In 1987, Russell hosted his first annual concert in Moorhead, MS at the MS Delta Community College Coliseum. These went on for 13 years, his final on April 29, 2000.
By 2001, Russell's health had been in a state of decline (for years, he had used his obesity as a running joke on the Grand Ole Opry), and in April 2001, both of his legs were amputated because of diabetes. Russell died July 3, 2001 in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 61 from diabetes-related complications.