By Rob Patterson
(LSM Jan 2014/vol. 7 – issue 1)
Kevin Russell is the bearded Buddha of contemporary Texas semi-acoustic roots music. As co-frontman of the Gourds, he spent the better part of the last two decades blending such diverse musical strains as Appalachian mountain jams, Cajun, classic country, roots rock, and even Snoop Dogg into a distinctive and indelible sound unlike anything else on the Texas music scene. In time, the Gourds became, as one local writer put it a bit clumsily yet still tellingly in The New York Times, “the national band of Austin” – i.e., not only beloved hometown favorites embodying the city’s frequently offbeat, left-of-center musical spirit, but ambassadors bannering Austin’s uniqueness and “keep it weird” sentiments to the rest of the nation and world.
But as of late October 2013, after an adventurous 19-year run and amassing a fat catalog of more than a dozen delightful and engaging studio, live, and soundtrack albums, the Gourds are officially “on a break.” Not necessarily a permanent one, but at least long enough for each of the members to actively pursue different musical avenues. Russell — along with Gourds drummer Keith Langford — is heading back into the studio to record his third long-player as Shinyribs, the project he started as a side-gig back in 2004 that is now his main artistic outlet. Meanwhile, Jimmy Smith, the bassist and other primary singer and songwriter in the Gourds, will carry on with the band’s accordion and keyboard player, Claude Bernard, as the Hard Pans. And Max Johnston, the Gourds’ fiddler, guitarist, utility string man and relief singer and songwriter, has moved from Austin back to his hometown of Dallas to attend to family business and record a solo album. So even though the band’s epic farewell (for the time being, at least) gig at Austin’s Threadgill’s in October was a bittersweet pill for many a fan to swallow, rest assured there will be a lot more music coming down the pike to help fill that Gourds-shaped hole.
Out of all the bountiful fruits spilling forth from the Gourds’ break, it is Russell’s Shinyribs that should give many fans the most immediate — not to mention familiar — comfort. Although the Gourds from the start were marked by a yin/yang duality of Russell’s hooky and sweetly-baited songs and Smith’s more angular and elliptical compositions, it was the former’s keening howl of a voice that emerged as the group’s more prominent musical signature. Not to mention the fact that Russell’s been pulling double duty with both the Gourds and Shinyribs for much of the last 10 years, developing the later into a formidable and wildly popular draw in its own right (especially in the wake of 2013’s sophomore Shinyribs platter, Gulf Coast Museum.)
A native of Beaumont, Russell started playing guitar at age 14, and a hint at his broad and open sound can be found in the first two albums he ever bought with his own money at the mall as a youngster: Waylon Jennings’ Greatest Hits and Macho Man by the Village People. His family moved during his high school years to Houston and then Shreveport, La., where he started the Picket Line Coyotes, whose guitarist was Rob Bernard (brother of the Gourds’ Claude), later of the Austin bands Prescott Curlywolf and the Damnations. The group was a “loud, sloppy, very loose rock ’n’ roll band with lots of energy,” as Russell describes it. After opening a show for the Wild Seeds, that band urged them to move to Austin.
Instead, the Coyotes moved to Dallas, as it was closer to their girlfriends and families in Shreveport. Their bass player quit, and Jimmy Smith joined. They opened a show for the Reivers, who also told them that Austin was a far better place for them. When the Coyotes finally got to Austin in the early ’90s, they played a few shows and then broke up. And that’s where the Gourds story begins. (For more of that story, check out All the Labor, a documentary about the group that premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March and that was released on DVD in November. It features numerous splendidly shot and recorded performances, and plans call for a soundtrack — along with other live recordings — to be released later in 2014.)
Russell’s career is a testament to the power of making music for the joy of doing so. Everything he’s done has not been by plan but rather from following his muse. Although the Gourds established an international presence and gathered a highly devoted coterie of fans, it started out as “friends first who played music together,” as Russell notes. Which should give hope for the future to those who loved the group.
Can you please make clear what the current status of the Gourds is as you all take a break from the band?
It’s an indefinite hiatus. Pretty much we’re walking away from it for a little while to see how we feel about it after years of built-up creative differences between me and Jimmy. Before we got to this point, it became difficult for both of us, and it felt like the best thing to do, all things considered. We just needed some time away from it, and maybe our feelings about it will change.
It must have been challenging to maintain that duality between the very different stylistic approaches of you and Jimmy over nearly two decades.
It’s always been different visions and ideas. For most of the time we just sorta both dealt with it, not a big deal. But in recent years it’s been more and more difficult. For me, it was just time to try something else. The Shinyribs thing is much more interesting to me at this point. So we’re going to get away from it and see how we feel. We’re separated; we didn’t get a divorce. We’re seeing other people.
Can you take us back to the beginning of the Gourds? After the Picket Line Coyotes broke up, you, Jimmy, and Claude were briefly a band called the Grackles. But the Gourds were something quite different from what you’d done before.
We wanted to get away from the loudness and carrying around the heavy amps. We lived together and hung out together all the time, and played music together because we liked to do that. So it was real natural.
I’d been playing mandolin for a while, and writing on it. Claude had been playing the hooter [Melodica] with Jimmy in a little band they had, just the two of them. So I joined up with that. But the Melodica wasn’t cutting it, so we were like, “You need to get an accordion.” He was the reluctant accordion player. He didn’t set out to play accordion — he just kind of wound up on it. It was one of those things, one of the universe’s little jokes on Claude: You’re going to play accordion!
I saw the Coyotes a few times, and I heard a significant shift in your songwriting when the Gourds started out. What was it that caused the change?
I was listening to old country music that I’d never heard. You didn’t hear that stuff growing up, like the (producer) Ralph Peer stuff. Nobody talked about it, nobody played it, it was forgotten, at least by my people that I grew up with. I discovered that stuff through a record, The Bristol Sessions (the 1927 recordings of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other country music pioneers that Peer did in Bristol, Tenn.), that was an influential record on a lot of musicians of my generation. That was our Harry Smith (Anthology of American Folk Music), I guess. That blew my mind.
I was also really into (Elvis) Costello at the time — his writing, what he was doing, especially his album Taking Liberties. That was a really influential record in thinking that you could have all these different styles of music on one record. I really loved that, and I fell in love with that idea and became a genre bender at that point. It was largely country music that pulled me that way, and playing the mandolin and acoustic instruments, and discovering that mountain music tradition.
When the Gourds started playing around Austin in the mid-90s, you were markedly different from just about any other act in town. And you generated a pretty mighty local buzz rather quickly. How did that come about?
Again, we just kind of fell into that. We always wanted that, but it just never happened for the Coyotes. And we just didn’t believe that it would happen for us, that we’d ever amount to anything. But we knew we loved to do music together.
It was (original drummer) Charlie Llewellin who made us play gigs. We’d still be in Jimmy’s house saying “we’re not ready” if it weren’t for Charlie. He just started booking gigs. And we’d say, “Wait, wait, we’re not ready!” And he’d say, “You’re ready. Of course you are, stupid! We’re playing this gig. Get used to it.” So we started playing gigs.
It took us a while to get an audience, like a year, maybe 18 months. I think what did it is that we did this residency at the Electric Lounge for a while. And we were at this age where all of our friends were single and partying all the time. And they’d all come to our shows. And they’d bring their friends.
It was that, and we did a KUT “Live Set” that Jeff McCord asked us to do, and we made it into a cassette that we sold at our shows. It was very popular, and there was a time when any coffee shop I went into — Ruta Maya or Flipnotics — that would be playing all the time. I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. I just thought it was cool. And then we did the Austin Acoustic Music Festival in ’94 or ’95 and there were a bunch of people there and that did us a lot of good. And we opened for Lucinda Williams at the Electric Lounge to a sold-out room, and we kicked ass. I think we won a lot of fans there. All of a sudden, our shows at the Electric Lounge were filled with a bunch of people. And we were like, “Wow, this is actually happening.”
The biggest attention getter for the Gourds was not one of your original songs, but instead your cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice.” What led you to do such a seemingly unlikely song?
I visited my sister in Denton for Christmas and she played that for me. I was like, “Wow, this is great.” I had sort of ignored rap until then. Then I heard [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic and Doggystyle, and they were like cartoons or something — it was all so animated and alive and humorous. It just blew my mind. And I loved that song in particular. It had such a great hook.
One thing I got from Johnny Cash was that he used to do all kinds of songs. In an interview I read he said that he didn’t care what kind of song it was. If it was a good song, he wanted to learn it and know it. So there again was another hint from the universe: Who cares about genres? It doesn’t matter. Good music is everywhere.
So that was it. And I wanted to learn that song. It took me a while. I had the lyrics as best I could understand them. I didn’t know the lingo or anything. I just scribbled down the lyrics. I didn’t have the Internet at the time — it wasn’t something I was aware of. I knew it was something Claude did, but I thought it was just where he played games. So I just wrote it down, and every once in a while I’d sit down and try to play it. I wasn’t going to rap, thought that was a bad idea. And eventually that melody came out.
A friend of ours had a birthday party at Waterloo Ice House, and he wanted me and Jimmy to each do a solo set. So I was like, “Okay, maybe I’ll do this ‘Gin & Juice’ song. That’ll blow their minds.” I thought it was pretty clever. So I played it and it brought the house down.
Then it was maybe the next weekend and we played the Electric Lounge. And we had a full house and an encore to do. And I was like, “Y’all remember that song I did at the birthday party? It’s just two chords, A and D. Just play that. We’ll vamp on that here and there and I’ll sing it.” And they were like, “Okay.”
That’s how we started doing it. We never rehearsed it, we never discussed doing it or anything. It was an encore one night off the cuff. And it was great and everyone loved it and it was badass. Except for Jimmy. He was like, “Eh, I dunno know if we should do that.” From the very beginning he had his skepticism about it. But it certainly doubled our audience at that point. It was almost immediate and it continued to double.
And when you recorded it, the song started becoming a phenomenon. Not long after that the label you were with, Watermelon Records, went bankrupt and the track went out of print. But it ended up on Napster, mislabeled as a recording by Phish, and became the file-sharing service’s most downloaded track. It now has racked up nearly 1.4 million plays on YouTube. But as much as it spread the band’s popularity, it became a double-edged sword, didn’t it?
It did appeal to the lowest common denominator, it seems. So we struggled with that song our whole career. We tried at one point to not play it for a year. I think we made it about four, five months maybe. I remember one night in Houston a lot of people in the crowd being seriously pissed off that we didn’t play it. And letting us know about it, as people in Houston will do. I was like, “I don’t want to deal with this every night. We have to start playing it again. People are paying to see us, let’s just play it, I don’t care. Let’s make it fun.” We eventually made peace with it.
I feel like the Gourds helped usher in a whole new aspect to the Austin scene that drew from bluegrass and mountain music, and a bunch of great new bands followed in your wake. What’s your take on that theory?
Yeah, I think so. I think we did a lot of good for that approach for things in Austin when we came along when we did. Maybe it was something that was happening across the country at the time. And the Bad Livers were an influence on us.
How did your band Shinyribs get started?
I’d been doing solo shows off and on and did one solo record. It was sort of a dead point where the frustration with the multi-writer band was developing. There was not enough room in the sets for all the songs I wanted to do and all the things I wanted to do. I was stuck in this affirmative-action-like model that the Gourds had. I started doing solo shows and that did all right for a while. Then I had to buy a car and be able to make a monthly car note. So I needed a monthly gig where I could make my car note.
So I called my friend Pete Mitchell in Houston and he gave me a monthly gig on a Wednesday night at Under the Volcano. And I started driving over there once a month by myself, doing shows. And the first show I did was packed. There was an article in the Houston Chronicle about it. I was totally unprepared for it. I was just going to go play some songs, kick around a bar, get a few hundred bucks and go home. That was all I wanted out of it. But suddenly there were all these people there. I was like, wow. It was really cool. And I started doing it as Shinyribs.
So how is Shinyribs like the Gourds, and how is it not like the Gourds?
Well, it’s like half of the Gourds songs because it’s me. So there’s a lot of common themes, like food. I write a lot of songs about food. And the writing is similar a lot of times; in that way it’s the same.
The different thing about it is in a way the same thing: It’s all me. It’s a lot freer for me. It’s a lot more danceable, I think. It leans a little more to the soul side of things. There’s no fiddles or accordions going on. It’s a pretty basic band, a lil’ rock ’n’ roll kind of country-soul thing. And I’m not playing mandolin anymore; I’m playing ukulele. And the degree of musicianship is higher — which is not a knock against the Gourds at all. But [keyboard player] Winfield [Cheek] is an extraordinary musician, and everyone knows that Keith is, too. And Jeff [Brown] is an amazing bass player. He’s really exceptional, and could be playing with anyone he wants to — but doesn’t know that yet. So don’t write that in your article. (Sorry, Kevin.)
Was Jimmy Smith feeling the same frustrations that you felt in the Gourds?
No, he wasn’t. He was much more into the band concept. I’m a big part of the problem. I was antsy, I was frustrated, maybe too ambitious. I’ll take most of the blame for causing the rift to begin. In hindsight it was mostly my fault, and my arrogance and ambitions about things. But I don’t regret it, necessarily.
It did seem with the Gourds that there were Kevin fans and Jimmy fans.
Yes, and there were more Kevin fans, and my songs were more successful than his. That’s just the nature of it. When we’d play a wedding we’d ask the bride and groom to make a playlist of what they wanted to hear, and it was always 90 percent my songs, always. And that pissed him off. It would have pissed me off, too.
I’m a Jimmy fan. I’m a fan of what he does and his music; not all of it, but a lot of it. He was fine with things, he was happy the way it was. And he could have kept going with things forever, that’s what he wanted to do. He got frustrated with me. And for me, he became an unpleasant person to be around. Me and him just didn’t get along. We didn’t fight, though; it was real passive/aggressive.
We lasted for frickin’ 20-plus years together. It was pretty successful. I think we both should be commended for that. I give him all the props in the world for being there at all those gigs and all those practices. And making all those records. He was always there, doing the work. He loved to do the work. It’s just time for me to be on my own.
Let’s play the guessing game. How long do you think it will be until the Gourds play together again?
I would say 18 months to two years and we’ll probably be talking about another record and a tour of some kind. That’s just what it feels like to me. I think in two years everybody will know who they are without the Gourds. And I think everyone will go, “We’d like to do that again, that was good.”
Beyond that, do you expect the Gourds to keep working together in some way or another well into the future?
Yeah, I think so. Everybody still likes playing together, likes doing it, likes all the things that go with that.
Are you proud of the legacy you created with the Gourds?
A lot of people have come up to me and said things like, “Man, I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid,” or, “I grew up in Austin and you’re like the soundtrack of the city,” things like that. It’s great to hear even if I never saw it like that. We meant a lot to a lot of people. I feel a little selfish for leaving when I did. But it did last a long time.
I have the electric guitar “The Gourds” that end up in goodwill, so I have it and searching whose the original owner and customized this beautiful piece of art and music that sounded cool and unique. I used it everywhere I go when I have little concerts here and there. I’m in the Philippines right now and heading back to US. My question is, who design this guitar among the members.