Glory Hallelujah

After working the Picket Line, Kevin Russell and the Gourds finally make a record as good as they are

"That's an example of a guy getting it," Rubin says of Russell. "Our whole purpose was to show you could play acoustic music and be inventive and even subversive and not suck. You didn't have to have a shtick. You could concentrate on having a good time and not beat people over the head with it."

A few years after those Saxon Pub gigs, the Bad Livers would have the Gourds open for them on a regular basis. But Rubin would eventually cut the band loose, complaining that their use of a drummer was too loud and annoying. That, Rubin says, "and they got way too damned good, and it's never a good idea to have an opening act that could possibly kick your ass."

Around 1993, Russell went to Laurel's Ranch in Comfort, Texas, and began recording some of his own solo material. Around that time, Smith had returned to Austin and began playing with Claude Bernard, Rob's brother. (Rob would eventually resurface in the Damnations, best described as the Gourds with ovaries and an X fixation.) It only made sense to consolidate efforts, and the foursome formed The Grackles--which fell apart around the same time Russell and Smith began having trouble getting along with Byrd, who was eventually pink-slipped. Byrd ended up with Prescott Curlywolf, which signed to Mercury Records. The Gourds came into being once drummer Claude Llewellin stepped in, around 1994.

"I was thinking I shouldn't play with Jimmy, that I should move on and let him do his thing and do my thing," Russell says. "But I can't imagine playing without him now. I am sure I could do it, but I wouldn't want to, because he's the best bass player since [The Band's] Rick Danko. At least that's what Doug Sahm says."

Russell talks about how the Gourds were originally a sort of reaction against the Picket Line Coyotes. Maybe it wasn't a conscious decision to play soft, to abandon rock, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he had grown cold to the idea of once more strapping on an electric guitar and having to jump up and down like a monkey. Besides, he had always written songs on the acoustic guitar; it was the instrument his father played. And if nothing else, playing acoustic meant having to shlep around fewer amps.

"I listened to a lot of singer-songwriter stuff from the '70s--James Taylor and Jim Croce," he says. "I always had that drippy sentimental leaning. Country was bad in the late '70s and early '80s, and as a kid, I couldn't dig it. It was years later before I realized how cool it was. But playing electric made more sense. It's easier to play electric live. And when you're in a band with Rob [Bernard], you're gonna be in a loud fucking band. I'm amazed at how restrained he is in the Damnations. I'm like, 'Why the fuck couldn't you do it back then?'" No matter: Rob Bernard has appeared on both Stadium Blitzer and Ghosts of Hallelujah.

But it's the addition of Johnston that's perhaps the most notable thing about the new record. It's his fiddle-playing, his mandolin, his dobro and banjo that define Ghosts. His presence roots the disc in tradition, if only for the fact that until he joined Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo in 1993, Max Johnston claims he'd never even heard rock and roll.

That's part of the reason Johnston and Wilco parted ways after the recording of Wilco's second record, Being There, in 1996. Johnston and Tweedy were going in separate directions: Tweedy wanted to become Lennon and McCartney, and Johnston had no idea what the hell Tweedy was talking about. While Johnston was sitting in the corner of the studio trying to figure out how to force a banjo into a psychedelic pop song, the rest of the band was waiting for him to play catch-up. In the end, everybody was miserable. When Johnston was fired, he couldn't decide whether he was furious or relieved.

Johnston would eventually move to Kentucky and play with Freakwater, but he wanted to come back to Dallas to be near his father, "Dollar" Bill Johnston, a folk-music hero. An old roommate of his gave Max a tape of some Gourds music and told him he should give Russell a call. He played his first gig with the Gourds during last year's South by Southwest conference in Austin: Johnston just showed up at the Hole in the Wall and let loose. You'd never have known he and the band had never even met before then--it was a sloppy and spectacular show, more gin than juice.

"When I was in Wilco, [a friend] played me the tape, and I was like, 'What am I doing in a rock band?'" Johnston says. "I heard Kevin's voice, I heard Jimmy's quirky songs, I heard a loose feel, which is kinda the way I play--kinda ragged. It sounded fun. They looked like they're having fun up there, and they're all such really good people. They're a dream to hang around with. And that first show, I had the time of my life. I know I probably messed a lot of stuff up, but it felt good. That was the beauty--I sat there, and we just played. I was rough, they were rough, and we all picked each other up." Johnston does say being in the Gourds is a lot like being in Uncle Tupelo--except the two singers get along.

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