By Rob Patterson
Things are looking bright — or one could say shiny — for Austin’s Shinyribs right now. What began as a side project from singer-songwriter and guitar, mandolin, and ukulele player Kevin Russell of the Gourds to make some scratch to cover the monthly payment for a new car is now just a full-time pursuit, but one of the most beloved (and busiest) bands in the region. And that was all before Shinyribs played New Year’s Eve show at Austin’s Auditorium Shores to a massive crowd of tens of thousands — a heartily promising kick-off to a 2017 that just eight weeks later would see the release of I Got Your Medicine, the band’s fourth album and first to showcase the new horn section, the Tijuana TrainWreck Horns, and two-woman vocal team, the Shiny Soul Sisters, making it literally the biggest musical party that master entertainer Russell has ever packed onto a single record.
Beaumont native Russell first musically emerged out of Shreveport, Louisiana in the Picket Line Coyotes, a rocking roots combo that relocated to Dallas and became part of that city’s then-booming Deep Ellum scene. They later moved to Austin and broke up. Out of its ashes emerged the Gourds, who grew from local club shows to tour North America and Europe, release 10 CDs, and even be the subject of a feature-length documentary film, All the Labor. With a largely acoustic sound that was highly original yet did resemble at times The Band, albeit dipped in Louisiana swamp water and topped with Texas BBQ sauce, the group boasted a fervent coterie of fans fostered over their run from 1994 to late 2013, when they went on ‘indefinite hiatus.”
But during the latter years of the Gourds, Russell’s Shinyribs began to catch on,
and eventually became his main focus. It’s again a group with their own unique sound — swamp pop ’n’ roll ’n’ soul on mescaline, with an occasional side trip into country, is one way to summarize it — totally natural territory for a Beaumont boy. The songs are rich with Russell’s wit and baited hooks, and the music gets the good times rolling in an infectious and musically smart and informed way. It’s a group that’s nearly impossible not to like if not adore — just like Russell himself, as one can clearly see from our recent talk with him.
So, 60,000 people on New Year’s Eve — 10,000 more than the Women’s March on Austin. Would it be safe to say that Shinyribs is Austin’s band of the moment?
I wouldn’t say that, but if you said it I wouldn’t argue with you. I don’t know. I have no barometer for that, never understood that part of stuff. But I’ve definitely gotten signals from places … like people that would not normally know my name talk to me now and want to be my friend. I say sure, fine. Something’s going on out there. But that was not just all us; it was New Year’s Eve, free show, beautiful weather, and a really good bill they put together: Peterson Brothers, Ray Wylie, us, Taméca Jones … it was just a perfect storm, so to speak. And it was great.
You had to have been the sharpest-dressed guy on the whole bill, though. You’re wearing some really snazzy suits these days. Who’s your tailor?
I get all my suits from Soul Train Fashions in New Orleans. It came about because, you know me, I have no fashion sense — I’ve been a slob my whole life. So this girl, she’s named Ashton Guy, she’s a young DIY artist here in town that I hired to do the album artwork for Okra Candy, the record before this one. She drew me in this red suit with a purple shirt. And I liked it so much, I was like, “Well, I’m going to have to get that suit and start wearing that suit.”
And I did. I got a red suit with a purple shirt and started wearing it at all the shows when I put that record out. Then I went to New Orleans one time and I left my suit at home. I was like, “Shit, I can’t play without my suit!” So I called up some friends there; I called my friend Papa Mali — Malcolm Welbourne — and I said, “Where do I get myself a good, hot-poppin’ suit in New Orleans? I’m sure there’s gotta be a place.” And he said, “Yeah, go to Soul Train Fashions! Go over there, they’ve got all ya want, all ya need.” So I did and, true enough, it’s like this giant warehouse of an African-American clothier, there in the middle of the hood. The suits are so thick on the racks you pull one out, you can’t get it back in, that kinda place. And they’re all dollar suits, maybe, and you get buy-three, get-two free kinda deal. It’s a cool place, and super nice people, and the ladies there helped me pick one out and select the shirts — they helped me out a lot the first time. So now when I go there I buy ’em three or four suits at a time. So I have this closet full of funky suits now.
The only problem is that I do have to get them tailored a bit to fit me, pants especially, because my body is so weird. So I have a lil’ hole-in-the-wall mom and pop place here that I go to over on Slaughter near Manchaca, Rivera Custom Tailor.
I find it sad that so many musical artists and players, especially here in Austin, just get up onstage in whatever clothes they woke up in.
I know. I was that guy for most of my career. And I see now, as my grandfather used to tell me, “You need to dress better, and you need an MC.”
Oh man, I want that gig. I would be so so good at that. Keep that in mind.
I do have a guy, my roadie Trey, who introduces me and does all the introduction stuff. We try to do a showbiz kind of thing, a Bobby Byrd/James Brown kind of deal.
You haven’t just pimped your stage wear, though; you seems to have embraced the whole notion of showbiz and that a gig should be entertainment.
Yeah! That’s true. I like doing it. I think it’s a natural thing that kind of evolved. In the Gourds, some of the struggle was that I’m a ham, I like to cut up, I like to entertain people when I’m onstage and do fun stuff. In the Gourds that worked to some extent, but also caused a little friction between me and Jimmy [Smith, the band’s other primary writer and singer]. He’s more of a …
He has a different vision for what his stage show should be. That’s fine. It was just one of those deals.
But now with Shinyribs, you seem to have really embraced showbiz razzmatazz. What brought that about?
I think once I got out of the Gourds, I was so pent up and anxious to try a lot of things I’d thought about doing that when I was finally free to do anything I wanted, that kind of led me to be like, “Hey, let’s try this, and let’s try that. Let’s look at the old showbiz stuff; maybe some of that shit will work, and be fun to do.” It’s corny but it’s fun. And nobody’s doing that anymore that I know of, except for old people. And I’m old, so …
We played Portland recently, and Steve Berlin [of Los Lobos] was there; he sat in with the opening band that night, and hung out for our show. After the show he was like, “Man, it’s cool to see that all the shit works.” I was like, “Yeah, it does man!”
When did you realize that what had been a side project was going to be your primary musical focus?
It was a gradual thing. I can’t really pinpoint one specific time. But when I started doing a monthly gig in Houston for a couple of years while the Gourds were still together, it’s how Shinyribs grew. After a year or so of doing that I could feel things in Houston changing. I was filling up that room and people would come and it was just a party. A lot of these people didn’t know who I was, they didn’t know who the Gourds were, they didn’t even care. A lot of my fans still don’t really even know that part of my career. And, there’s also a lot of people that assume that I used my reputation with the Gourds to take me to another thing. But that’s really not what happened at all.
And of course I’m sure there are still diehard Gourds fans who hear Shinyribs and are like, “It’s not the Gourds, man …”
Oh yeah, yeah, of course. And I understand that. We’re not the Gourds. Some of the most hardcore Gourds fans, they’re happy for me and everything, but it’s not the Gourds. And I appreciate their loyalty to that, and that was what they liked. But this is not anything like that, to me; it’s totally different personnel [other than drummer Keith Langford, who is also Russell’s brother-in-law], totally different songs.
In the Gourds, you had great success with really inventive cover songs, like Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” That’s one thing you’ve carried over to Shinyribs. How do you go about picking them? What are the qualities or characteristics in a song that prompt you to think, “hey, maybe I should so that.”?
There’s just certain songs that for whatever reason … Sometimes it’s just purely musical, and a lot of times nostalgia plays into that, too. I kinda know what I am musically, the feels that I like, the voice that I use and stuff. And I love to mash songs that you don’t expect someone like me to do, I really love doing that. It’s fun to do, and you learn a lot. Every time you learn a song you learn something about songwriting, arranging, your own self. So it’s just part of expanding my consciousness more than anything. I like sharing it and it’s fun to do, and helps promote my image and name. And hopefully out there there’s some knucklehead young musicians/songwriters/singers who might realize, “Oh, I can do anything I want. I don’t have to do Texas country for the rest of my life.”
Instead, you can do a David Bowie song in your own way, as you do with “Golden Years.”
It’s tough to cover Bowie. I had to find the right song. I kinda knew what I wanted, but going through his songs, it took me a while to find one that I could pull off. It’s not easy to sing his songs like he does, such a strange voice and a weird range he had. And the weird phrasing; his phrasing is just bizarre. If you try to actually mimic it, it makes no sense to me. But it sounds great when you listen to it. I picked “Golden Years” because I could arrange it the way I wanted, kinda on based on “On Broadway.”
After working with your longtime friend George Reiff as producer on the first three Shinyribs albums, you did this one with Jimbo Mathus, who led the band Squirrel Nut Zippers. How did that come about?
I’ve gotten to be good friends with him over the last four or five years. I didn’t know who he was. I just heard one of his solo records called Confederate Buddha, which is one of my favorite records, really, and I just had to meet the guy. That never happens to me. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me where I hear a record and I go, “I need to know this person.” So I got his phone number from some mutual friends and just called him up, and I was like, “Man, I heard that record of yours and I think you stole my record collection, and I want it back.”
So that began our friendship. Whenever he comes to Texas he’ll open for us, play with us and stuff. So it’s been a couple of years now. He was supposed to open for us at a gig in Beaumont; I thought, he should get into this gig, they’d love him. But he was coming from Houston to Beaumont and got stuck in traffic, and missed his opening spot. But he still showed up. And that was the first time he had heard me with the Tijuana TrainWreck Horns, and it was a revelation to him. He was like, “Man, we gotta make a record.”
That was sorta in my mind. And then I was reading that book about SugarHill [Recording Studios in Houston], House of Hits I think it’s called. And the history of Gold Star/Sugar Hill. I had also gotten into swamp pop over the last few years, playing Houston, and DJs there, music writers there, friends I’ve made have turned me on to the swamp pop thing. So all that culminated in this moment where I was like, “Well, I’d love to work with Jimbo. I’d like to make kind of a swamp pop record. And we should do it at SugarHill, that’s the place.” So it all kind of came together in my head at that point. I told Jimbo, “I’ll be your George Jones if you’ll be my Pappy Daily.”
That’s kinda what I was going for and it pretty much worked the way I thought it would. I did a lot of the arrangements early with the band myself, and I was sending recordings of the arrangements to Jimbo, and he would suggest this or that. We got everything really well rehearsed and really well arranged before we went in so we could do it all live. Everybody played together, all at the same time, truly live recording in the studio. Yeah!
I hear a lot of Doug Sahm on this album. Have you been communing with his spirit?
Doug was a swamp pop singer before he was anything; he was doing all that swamp pop stuff — that’s his roots, I think, that R&B, swamp pop thing. He gave that San Antonio thing to it. The story I’ve heard is that Doug was just the guy who was after Huey Meaux forever to work with him, and finally Huey Meaux put him up to the Sir Doug thing, wearing the British hairdos and outfits. He’s like the guy who agreed to do the scam. [Laughs] Who knows where Doug would have ended up if he hadn’t said yes to that.
He was a force of nature, that guy.
So when all of the band is in the van on the way to a gig, is there one CD that everyone digs listening to right now?
I usually am the DJ because I’m in the front passenger seat all the time. So it’s just whatever I play. My roadie/driver guy Trey, he loves James McMurtry, he loves Leon Russell, Shelter People, so we listen to that one a lot. Lately I’ve been listening to Mad Dogs & Englishmen a lot, just because I think I wanna cover that whole record at some point with my band. I think we have the band to do it. But it’s a lot of the typical stuff. A lot of soul. A lot of New Orleans R&B stuff, the Dave Bartholomew stuff, and Fats [Domino] — all that era of New Orleans R&B. I listen to it all the time. That’s long been some of my favorite music when I want to listen to music and chill and be happy; that’s my happy music.
There’s a song on the new album called “Tub Gut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul.” Can you define what “red-eyed soul” means to you?
That song I came up with is just a description. People are always asking me, especially music writers, what kind of music we play. Or somebody that doesn’t know who I was will ask me, what kind of music do you play? And that’s one of my most hated questions. [Laughs] I’m like, “I don’t know …” But “red-eyed soul” is like blue-eyed soul, but for stoners. That was the idea.
It sounds on the album like you’ve really worked on your singing.
Yeah. That came from working with George Reiff; he made me more conscious of it. He made me a better singer on those first few records I made with him. He really made me focus on it. I think I focused more on it on this album because I think it’s what I do best, really. If you take all the things I do, I think I’m pretty good at a lot of stuff — but I feel like singing is what I do best. I don’t have a super great ear, I don’t have a super great voice. But I think I’m really good at phrasing. I think that’s what I do the best. So I work on that, I have fun with it. A lot of time in the shows, I don’t play an instrument, I just sing. And I have this great band, so I don’t have to play, really. Or I can do like B.B. King and just pick it up every now and then and play a little lead thing.
As B.B. told me when I interviewed him back in the early ’80s, he puts so much of himself into both guitar playing and singing that he can’t do both at once.
It’s true. It’s a trade off. I’ve just sort of focused on it [singing] more. And I’ve gotten better at it. On recording, though, I think I sing better when I’m recording the initial track, what a lot of people would use as their “scratch” track. And most people, they’ll go back and overdub a vocal and make it perfect, but I generally tend to keep my scratch track because when I’m in that immediate moment I sing better and my phrasing is more in rhythm. I’m playing off the rhythm of the songs at the moment. I think I’m better as a live singer, really. If I have too much time and can make it perfect, then it’s not gonna be as good.
How did you come to add horns to the band?
Yeah, the horns, I’d never really thought about it. We played a wedding maybe three, four years ago. And the groom, part of the deal was, he said, “I want you to add a horn section.” And he had like eight or 10 songs he wanted us to play. And, I was like, “Okay. It’ll cost you extra.” And he was like, “that’s fine. I just want to hear you with a horn section.”
So I ran across these guys that were playing with Uncle Lucius, friends of mine, and they played this wedding with me, and it was great. First we rehearsed, and I was just loving it. I was like, “this is amazing.” We played a couple of parties just after that, and I invited then to come sit in. And we just kinda went from there. I was like, “man, I gotta keep doing this because this is the shit!”
And they’re cool guys, professional, a good hang. And they weren’t looking to get rich or anything. A lot of horn sections, they hire themselves out, and they wanna be paid (extra). I was like, “I don’t have the money, you gotta work for the same thing we’re working for.” But these guys were like normal musicians: “Yeah, whatever we’re getting paid, we’ll work for the same thing the other guys are working for.” And I was like, “okay, cool.”
It was a leap if faith for me. We did it off and on for a while. And then I was like, “Y’know, we’ve gotta make this permanent, we just gotta do this … I believe that when we add these horns regularly, the crowds are going to get better, and we’re gonna make more money, because it’s a better product.” And the guys were cool with that too, and that’s what happened.
In addition to the horns, you also brought in the Shiny Soul Sisters — Sally Allen and Alice Spencer — as back-up singers. How did that come about?
We did a Valentine’s Day show at Gruene Hall two years ago where I wanted to do a bunch of love songs, and I decided I needed a couple of background sinters to do the songs I wanted to do. I already knew Sally, because she’d sang on all my records, so I knew she’d be one of them. And Alice I’d met through Danny Levin, who plays fiddle with me sometimes. He said, “If you need another girl, Alice is the one, she’s great.” Sure enough, he was right, Alice is awesome. So we did that Valentine’s show, and from that point on, I was like, “Okay, I gotta find a way to keep doing this … I know it’s crazy, guys, but I wanna make this band bigger!”
It’s really been like a dream, every time we play, it’s incredible. I know it won’t last forever, nothing does. But I’m gonna enjoy it while it’s happening.
If you could be another musical artist, who would it be?
Achh, man, that’s a tough one. I love Conway [Twitty]. There’s not that many artists that I’m really a fanboy about, but he’s definitely one of them. As a songwriter and musician and the musical thing he does, I’m just … I’m always in awe of him.
I hear singers all the time and I wish I could sing like them. I mean, Al Green — the greatest. George Jones … who wouldn’t wanna, just for one song, live in that voice? To hear that come out of yourself would be just crazy. Maybe one day, in Westworld, we’ll be able to do that.
Do you have a current “can’t miss” TV series?
I’m a sports guy, honestly. I love the Spurs, I watch all the Spurs games. I don’t watch a lot of TV though. I like to watch the Colbert show when I’m home, but not much else. My youngest son and me, sometimes we like to watch … he likes American Experience, the PBS documentary show. We watch those a lot. Always looking for things to connect with my kids on; it’s not that easy to do in this day and age.
Read any good books lately?
No. I haven’t read a book in a year, honestly. I’ve not been reading. I don’t know why; I think it might be because of my phone. I read a tons of news and periodicals on my tablet, that’s where I read mostly now, but I don’t read books on it. I think I’m disconnected from reading books. I’m definitely worried about that. My wife sits there next to me and reads every night. She’s a voracious reader. Maybe it’s just because I’ve become lazy in my brain.
Here’s another one: As the new album and title track says, you’ve got our medicine. But what’s yours?
My medicine? Uh… Gosh, it’s probably Ambien! Or music … well, music is like my religion rather than my medicine. I guess food has always been my main thing — it’ll be the death of me. And I love the cannabis. But other than that? Sunshine. Sunshine, music, sex — all the usual stuff. Love is good.
So if, as you sing on a song on this album, “The Cross Is Boss,” what’s your God?
God to me … like I said, my religion is music. Art. Poetry. God to me is that. That’s as much as I could really say. I’m not a religious person, but music to me is religion. I’m constantly immersed in it, it never stops, and I love it. So I’m hoping the afterlife is that way.
“The Cross Is Boss” is a little bit of an experiment for me to see if anybody’s listening … and thinking. I’m not really talking about it too much. I just want to see what happens. The only complaint I’ve gotten so far was somebody giving me shit about doing gospel music — a God hater was like, “What the fuck is that shit?”
Things are obviously going great for Shinyribs right now. But for the folks out there that still want to know — do you think the Gourds will ever get together again to play and record?
I would say probably. I’m positive about it. I don’t know when, though. I think it’s gonna be a lot longer than most Gourds fans may think.
So in the meantime, what’s the plan for Shinyribs world domination?
I don’t want to dominate the world. I’d just like to dominate the region. I’m not a national touring band and don’t do that. I’m a regional band. It’s just a superior model for me. It’s perfect for my life and everyone in the band and where their lives are at. It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s more fun. I think with my musical career I’ve learned, like when you are driving on the interstate, you look for that sweet spot. You don’t wanna be around the big crowd being fast and a big crowd going slow. You find the sweet spot between them.