By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"You know, I never listened to The Band when we started the Gourds," says Russell, who has heard comparisons to The Band more often than he's heard his own name during the past four years. "I had heard the hits, but I never bought a Band record. But when people started saying it, I went and bought The Band, which is a great record, and so I tried to write a few songs on purpose that sounded like The Band, like 'Money Honey' [on Dem's Good Beeble] and 'Gangsta Lean.' I tried to even use the voice. It's fun to do. It's like playin' like you're someone else you're not--it's role-playing. It's a real playful thing. It's almost a joke at first."
It seems like forever since Russell, Smith, and Rob Bernard (Claude's brother) were playing in a rock-and-roll band. But it was only eight years ago that the boys packed up the van and left Dallas for Austin. They skipped town because their band, the Picket Line Coyotes, seemed to draw smaller crowds with each downtown gig. There were just too many white funk bands to contend with, too many Denton boys with horny-horns filling the bills.
The Coyotes never felt as though Dallas cared much for what they had to offer--two-track, breakneck rock and roll filtered through Russell's round Southern-boy twang. One day, perhaps, the world will stumble upon those old Coyote tapes (there were three, each a precious commodity now) and realize that right here--in a city where so many clubs sit on a street called Commerce--a band made the very same brand of muddy-roots rock that would make two boys from Belleville, Illinois, very famous in a cult sort of way. Until that happens, know this: The Coyotes were doing Uncle Tupelo long before Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy started hating each other.
The Coyotes also left town because they never found in Dallas what Russell and Bernard had left behind in their old hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana--that "pseudo-intellectual community," as Russell puts it, of artists (musicians, painters, writers) bound together by the common cause of creating, sharing, and exploring for the sheer what-the-hell of it. Used to be you could go downtown on a Thursday night and find Russell on a stage at Dave's Art Pawn Shop or a stool at The Art Bar, where he would be reading some caustic, hysterical prose from his journal. But too often, when he looked out into the crowd, he saw the same faces--old friends who had moved to Dallas from Louisiana. Enough was enough.
So Russell, Bernard, and Smith--who joined the Coyotes in 1989--stowed their instruments and left for Austin, where they had stumbled across like-minded musicians, among them the Wannabes and ex-Reiver John Croslin. If nothing else, Russell says now, he and his bandmates figured it would be "more fun" to live in a place where newcomers lovingly speak of the vibe and atmosphere as though Austin were still a small town instead of a burgeoning concrete sprawl.
Only when they moved south, Russell says, "Austin didn't want to have anything to do with the Picket Line Coyotes." The band broke up in 1992.
After the bust-up, Smith moved to Nacogdoches and started writing his own songs, a task that had been primarily Russell's in the Coyotes. Russell played around Austin for a little bit with Ron Byrd, an old buddy from Shreveport; he'd also show up at the now-defunct Chicago House and keep reading from his notebook. He thought he was through being in bands.
But around then, Russell was becoming enamored of a group featuring two other ex-Dallas boys, Mark Rubin and Danny Barnes, who had marked time in Killbilly and were playing under the name the Bad Livers--and only beginning to prove it was possible to turn Iggy Pop into Bill Monroe. Russell would hear the Bad Livers every week at an Austin bar, the Saxon Pub, where the Livers played for free after Monday Night Football.
Rubin recalls now that no one ever paid attention, which made it the "coolest gig you could ever have, since we could play anything." It was there that Rubin (on tuba, accordion, and stand-up bass), Barnes (on banjo), and Ralph White (fiddle) found their sound somewhere behind the cases of Shiner. As often happens in Austin, a scene sprang up around the Livers' residency. In time, Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes would show up and sing with them. The whole thing served as an inspiration for a young Russell, who didn't know what the hell he was going to do next.
"I never wanted to play that much traditional music, but seeing what they were doing solidified what I wanted to do after the Coyotes," Russell says. "I knew I could never be like Danny Barnes--he's from another planet--but I knew I could use any instrument I wanted and play whatever song I wanted. Hearing them do an Iggy Pop song was when I thought, 'That's cool.' You can play acoustic instruments and play punk rock and do it tastefully--not loud, not adolescent."
Rubin's voice rises in delight when he hears about Russell's appreciative nod. The two men have become friends, part of that clique Russell, and Rubin, for that matter, so desperately wanted in Dallas but never found. Only last week, Rubin sold Russell a 1918 mandolin, and the Bad Liver speaks optimistically of one day recording with Russell, just the two of them, armed to the teeth with decades-old instruments like folk-music militia men.