Sometimes when you make an expensive purchase you take on a second job to pay for it. So when Kevin Russell of the Gourds bought his family a new car in 2007, he looked for a way to make about $500 a month on the side. Instead of throwing newspapers, Russell started Shinyribs, a solo project that played Houston bar Under the Volcano once a month. To help him with the long drive from Austin, he started bringing along another musician, who added percussion or a second guitar.
While recording the 2010 debut LP Well After Awhile, which brought his vocals up in the mix compared to the Gourds recordings, Russell started assembling a four-piece band. But even more importantly, he started thinking that maybe he could survive as a working musician without the talented and successful band he co-founded in 1994 with bassist/singer Jimmy Smith.
The Gourds were going gangbusters at the time, recording the album "Old Mad Joy" at Levon Helms' studio in Woodstock, NY, touring to a growing cult audience across the country and being the focus of the terrific documentary All the Labor. They were in demand to play weddings and private parties, where they usually made $1,000 a man, enough for fiddle/ mandolin player Max Johnston to come down from Dallas, where he moved two years ago to oversee his family's real estate holdings on Lower Greenville.
"I really felt that the past five years of the Gourds, money became a main motivation," Russell says. Since the 1995 recording of Dem's Good Beeble, which Russell calls the best Gourds album, the married band members fathered a combined 12 children and there were bills to pay.
But the creative high point of Russell's month was always Wednesday in Houston in front of 60 to 70 fans. He loved the freedom of running the whole show, of making up a setlist without debate, of singing his heart out without worrying that he might be upstaging the band. He describes his time with the Gourds, founded on a deal that he and Smith would split lead vocal and songwriting duties 50/50, as "a constant tug of war."
This year, Russell let go of the rope and took his brother-in-law, Gourds drummer Keith Langford, with him. The Gourds played their last show before an "indefinite hiatus" in late October in Austin. "I think some of them are still a little pissed off at me," Russell says of his decision to focus on Shinyribs full time.
That final Gourds show, "The Last Stomp," was everything fans had hoped for. The band played in all sorts of configurations, with guest musicians and side bands, and did a bunch of songs they hadn't done in years. The sold-out crowd, many of whom flew in from all over the country on short notice, ringed the stage tightly, like they were watching a cockfight. The Gourds ended the four-hour party with a horn-heavy blowout of "Gin and Juice," followed by an encore of Smith's "Caledonia."
They hugged onstage, but the two factions- Smith and multi-instrumentalist Claude Bernard have a new band the Hard Pans- haven't really talked much since. "It was a wonderful show because it was that show, our last one," says Russell. "Seeing all those familiar faces in the crowd, every one had a story or a memory. It was like looking at my life the past 20 years."
In concert, Shinyribs never plays Gourds songs, not because Russell wants to keep that band in the past, but because, with the great followup LP Gulf Coast Museum, a more organic-sounding "band" record than the solo debut, there's enough Shinyribs material to fill an hour and a half. They don't even have to play "Gin and Juice," the bluegrass take on Snoop Dogg that became the Gourds' "Free Bird." Instead, Shinyribs throws crowd-pleasing curves by covering "Waterfalls" by TLC and Hendrix's "The Wind Cried Mary" with a lone ukulele.
Russell, Langford, bassist Jeff Brown and keyboardist Winfield Cheek have gone back into the studio with producer George Reiff (who was a member of Dallas band Big Loud Dog when Russell, then fronting Picket Line Coyotes, met him in 1989) to record the third album. The working title "Okra Candy" perfectly describes the band's sound of sweet and melodic Southern roots music.
"I've really been invigorated by the acceptance of Shinyribs," says Russell, who's been a prolific songwriter since his teenaged days in Beaumont, where his father worked in the oil supply business. The greatest area of fan base growth is in the so-called "red dirt" Oklahoma/ Texas country scene. Cody Canada of the Departed, and formerly with Cross Canadian Ragweed, has been an outspoken fan of Shinyribs, who connect with the "plastic daddy" outlaws in a way that the Gourds never did because the Gourds never tried. But put Shinyribs in a festival with a college-aged crowd and you'll be surprised at how many of these kids are singing along to "Take Me Lake Charles" and "Sweeter Than the Scars" from the new album and "Country Cool," "Poor People Store" and "East Texas Rust" from the debut.
In a way, the 46-year-old Russell has become the elder statesman of a scene he's fairly new to. But as a singer/songwriter/guitarist, he's undeniably the full package. Put him on a bill with the Josh Abbott Band, Jason Boland and the like and Russell comes off like a hippie redneck Buddha who knows exactly what he wants to do onstage. His records prove him to be equally focused in the studio.
The road to 'ribs began in Shreveport, where Russell's father's job took him at age 15. He started a band after high school called Picket Line Coyotes, a sort of punkier Elvis Costello, and when they opened for Austin bands passing through, Rusell and co-horts would invariably hear that they needed to get down to Austin. "We had people in Shreveport and this was in the era of the 55 miles per hour speed limit and it took forever to drive from Shreveport to Austin," he says. So the band moved to Dallas in 1988 as a midpoint.
When the PLC bassist got married and settled down, a Plano kid named Jimmy Smith auditioned for the job and got it. "It was actually George Reiff who sent him our way," says Russell. Smith tried out as guitarist for Big Loud Dog, but when he admitted he was really a bass player, but desperately wanted to be in a band on the Deep Ellum scene, Reiff told him the Coyotes were looking for a bassist. "Jimmie was the fresh blood we needed," Russell says. "He was this really great bass player with tons of enthusiasm. We would've broken up if it wasn't for him."
The band moved down to Austin in 1991 and did, eventually, break up. Before the Gourds was the Grackles. But regardless of what they were called, there was a stark new direction in the songs that Russell was writing. He became infatuated with the work of John Lomax, the Austin-based musicologist who hunted indigenous music all over the world with his son Alan. His band started being compared to Levon Helm and the Band more than Graham Parker and the Rumour.
Russell says the Gourds song that led most to Shinyribs was "Promenade" from 2006's Noble Creatures. It's a beautifully sung ballad with minimal accompaniment that the Gourds almost never played live. "The other guys just couldn't seem to get behind that one," Russell says, "and I thought that was one of the best songs I'd ever written with the group."
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Russell also started writing on the ukulele more, which didn't seem to gel with the mandolin-driven material the Gourds are known for. "Some Shinyribs songs, like 'Country Love,' became Gourds songs, but most of them I'd just keep on the side. They were for something else."
They were for Shinyribs, a band every bit as satisfying as the Gourds if singing and songwriting are your things. The arrangements are more direct, the lyrics more linear. These are songs that sound like you could hear them on the radio if such a world still existed for artists with no future as commodities.
As for that new car that started everything six years ago. Russell made his last payment this summer and now it's all his.
Shinyribs plays the Kessler Theater on Friday, December 27.