Life, Death, and Shoofly Pie
The Gourds and their Internet Fan group
After Eric Christian Wagner died in the early morning hours of July 4, 2001, he was mourned by his family, friends, and more than 600 people he'd never met. When he was buried, it was in his favorite T-shirt, one for the Gourds' Dem's Good Beeble.
By all accounts, Wagner was good beeble, too. He proposed to his wife Joyce from the stage at a Gourds show. When Joyce was confined to hospital bed rest in her last stage of pregnancy, Chris talked the Gourds into visiting her at the medical center. The first song their newborn daughter heard was the Gourds' "Magnolia," thus Meris Elaine Magnolia Wagner was named. One week before his death, he discussed with the band taking over the Gourds' mail orders; he and Joyce were moving back to Austin imminently.
When the time came to notify the 600-some-odd fellow fans about Chris Wagner's funeral details, Kevin Russell of the Gourds stepped forward to do so. And he did it through the Gourds' Internet fan list.
Wagner was a tie-dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Gourds. Better known onscreen as "Hank Hillbilly," he was active in a garrulous Gourds cyber-fanbase that counts almost 700 members as part of its extended family. That family also includes his sister Amber, wife Joyce, and hundreds of members around the world. They call themselves "listers" and they are rabid about their love for the Gourds and their music.
So Damn Addicting
"Wanna talk about it? Go to our boards," invites People.com. Whatever subject du jour "it" may be, Net users love to talk -- on People.com, on CNN.com, E! Online, AOL, MSN, and almost any other media site that calls itself interactive. Internet chat is the next best thing to having a good friend in your living room.
To the uninitiated, the very sight of these Web sites can be bewildering. Log onto a message board or "listserv," and you'll likely see a column of blue highlighted topics. Think of the screen as a file cabinet and imagine the topics as folders. Reading posts inside the topics is akin to seeing what's inside the folder. Posting to the topics is like scribbling a message on a sheet of paper and filing it in that folder.
By now, it's obvious that the Internet's value to musicians is infinite. Band and record label Web sites offer an endless variety of media resources, fan information, and retail products. Labels and bands have discovered the power of "street teams," net-savvy fans drafted to do renegade PR such as postering. E-mail lists that send out tour or recording info offer close interaction between the musician and the audience outside the club and concert arena.
Narrowing the gap even more is the listserv, an e-mail group such as "Cucurbitaceae" (www.groups.yahoo.com/group/cucurbitaceae), which is the Gourds' fan list on Yahoo.com. Such lists might also serve condominium owners, medieval-literature lovers, and even truckers on the road, but the medium is particularly suited to music audiences, who can lend a hand to almost any band. For a group with limited resources, it's an inexpensive way to build a following. To a fan on any level, that intimacy is priceless.
The Gourds -- Kevin Russell, Jimmy Smith, Claude Bernard, Keith Lankford, and Max Johnston -- have built their following for seven or so years with more than five full-length albums, one EP, and three solo releases. The band's second effort for North Carolina indie Sugar Hill Records, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig, is just out [see facing page]. Their droll, salty "music for the unwashed and well-read" translates spectacularly well live, making them one of the hottest acts in Austin. It's no surprise they draw as well in cyberspace as in person.
Russell, the Gourds' primary lyricist and vocalist, says his initial experience with the list was both helpful and illuminating. A Houston fan who started the listserv in late 1998 suggested its e-mail addresses be utilized by the band to announce shows. Russell, who confesses to not having been "very cyber-savvy" at the time, suddenly discovered its value.
"It was fun to talk with all these different fans around the country and all over the world," enthuses Russell. "Really cool. Early on, I would use it to say, 'Okay, we're coming through Iowa City, and we need somewhere to stay.' And someone from the list would say, 'I can take care of you!' We were hand-to-mouth out there on the road."
Cucurbitaceae is a separate entity from both the official site (www.thegourds.com) and the official unofficial site Porter Yax built (www.rogyax.home.texas.net). One of the original listers, Yax found the list a fine place to learn about similar bands.
"Like the Lazy Sunday Dream, Mike Nicolai, Slobberbone, the Damnations, Baptist Generals, Li'l Cap'n Travis, and Drive-By Truckers," adds Yax via e-mail. "There are great bands out there that never get the recognition they deserve, because they aren't played on the radio stations."
What exactly is created by communicating interests through e-mail? For fan lists, it's a sense of community that creates personal bonds between people who have never met and may never meet. The common ground is established; all that's left is for someone to post a comment that will garner a reaction. It's a way of speaking your mind without saying a word.
And when a hot topic strikes a chord, the e-mail list pulses with life, posts fly back and forth, and the computer's mailbox icon flashes incessantly, demanding attention like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. "Read Me" the waiting message demands, and it's hard to ignore.
Joyce Wagner admits being on the list can be all-consuming.
"It's so damn addicting," she writes. "I have to monitor myself, or I won't get a single thing done at work all day."
The immediacy of e-mail is its own allure, a bellwether to 21st-century communication. E-mail lists, like message boards, are the malls of cyberspace, where you can hang out with friends and family you've never met.
Geeking About Music
"The list friendships mostly revolve around the Gourds and geeking about music in general," muses Amber Wagner, whose late brother introduced her to the list. Now, she and her three best friends, Jill, Emily, and Honey, are all listers who "try to make it to all the local shows." Amber posts almost daily and chats on and off the list with a half-dozen or so listers, including her sister-in-law Joyce.
"John the Ducktaper" thinks the list has a "definite family feel." John started out as a fan and now works part time for the band. He's an archivist of sorts and is one of the list's sources for band info and history. He just returned from driving the Gourds' van up to Seattle.
"I've been camping with [listers], met them for dinner," he divulges. "I've been fed, given free drinks, just 'looked out for' in general. I can't imagine what it'd be like without these guys providing the soundtrack for my life."
Her husband's death made Joyce Wagner, who stepped into his place as "MrsHankHillbilly," appreciate the kindness of listers. "If there's anything I want to know or something I want to obtain, it's the first place I'd go," she admits. "Where else can you solicit stuff or information from hundreds of people all over the world, who'd be happy to help you out?"
Charlotte, N.C., is a long way from the heart of Texas, but lister Pete Davis feels strongly connected via the Gourds board. "You do feel as though you get to know [members], even though you haven't met," he relates. "We've all offered sympathies through deaths of some listmembers' families, and celebrated births and marriages with them, too. It's a strange sort of detached thing in a way, but very warm and personal in another."
At a recent Gourds show, Amber Wagner met a lister who read regularly but didn't post. The lister offered her sympathies on Chris' death, and the two hit it off. Still, Amber remarked, it was "so strange to meet a complete stranger who knows your whole online story."
Not everyone enjoys the idea of being known through a listserv. Chad Hamilton was an early fan of the Gourds, and like Porter Yax, joined the group in its infancy. He admits to being "a little weirded out by the idea of becoming friends with someone I met online. I'm not buddy-buddy with others on the list." That's the worst thing about the list, he opines. "It's too chummy ... too much non-band stuff gets discussed."
But the non-band aspects bond the listers just as solidly as the music. Homesick Texans and Southerners-at-heart across the country are members, as much Gourds aficionados as they are folks hungry for the company of Lone Star residents. Ditto South Africa and Australia. Add a few good European beeble, and the list turns wildly international.
Jan Van Doorn, aka "Jan the Lazyman," lives in Amsterdam. His posts [see sidebar] are cited as favorites almost unanimously among Gourds listservers for their stream-of-consciousness as well as their "mostly good English." They "are the stuff of Gourdian legend," according to Pete Davis.
"Even if I don't always understand them, they almost always leave me smiling," says Pete.
Jan's own band, Lazy Sunday Dream, made the trek from Holland to Austin for SXSW 2001, and have recorded with the Gourds. "I never thought there was something going on with the computer, but I was wrong about that," writes Jan. "It's a family, and I like the fun and madness."
The girls from England might've had a tough time with the list had they not entered wearing the kind of brass balls Queen Elizabeth donned when she said with a straight face she was sorry about Princess Diana's death.
Marilyn Kay lives in Manchester, on England's western seaboard. She owns a couple of listservs on Yahoo! and subscribes to others. She finds Cucurbitaceae a fun list to participate in. "They're a great bunch of people who it's impossible not to feel some kind of affinity to," she offers.
"I've even been offered a place to stay," marveled Lettice of London, about her upcoming trip to Austin for the Austin City Limits Festival. "As well as some really good [travel] advice and recommendations -- all of which are extraordinarily kind."
Chad Hamilton remembers the moment he became a fan. "I saw them at Stubb's, SXSW 97, then caught them the next week in Dallas at the Barley House with about 10 other people. I've been hooked ever since." He believes the best thing about the list is Kevin Russell's participation.
Hamilton is not alone. Russell's presence is cited overwhelmingly as one of the linchpins of Cucurbitaceae, in effect legitimizing it. One longtime lister thinks "the list people share a special connection to the Gourds because they are dedicated fans, and because they have a forum in which to yak at Kev, trade bootlegs, crack jokes, etc. It's less slavish fandom and more casual hanging out than an average list."
Russell's "hillbilly rants," as another lister calls them, are golden. Pete Davis speculates that Russell may use the list as a sounding board, a place to blow off steam, and thinks "some of the ideas put forth [may] have been the seeds of some of his unique songs."
Russell is less romantic about his reasons for participating in the list.
"I get great recipes from there, like for chili and Shoofly Pie."
You have to feel somewhat sorry for Dawn Fudge. When she joined Cucurbitaceae, her name inspired reams of posts and ongoing jokes. She dealt good-naturedly with the teasing for a while, then unsubscribed.
E-rage, E-pinions, and the Boot
A Gourds fan named "BAD" was one of her chief razzers. BAD is a nickname for the list irritant, the class clown, group antagonist. He tweaks the listers in every way possible, from parodying album titles (gogitchyershinebox as gogitchyerboxshined) to flat-out insults. Everything and everyone is fair game for him, especially Kevin Russell.
Most of the listers ignore or tolerate BAD, but at least one of the moderators confides that "unsubscribe requests tend to come in waves after [he] has posted a lot." Even so, BAD's supporters are outspoken about defending him, especially when he provoked Russell into "banning" him from the list a couple of years ago. Chad Hamilton stated unequivocally that his favorite controversial topic is "anything that BAD brings up."
BAD, a softie who deeply loves Texas music and "cried like a fool when Doug [Sahm] died," offered his unabashed version of the disagreement.
"I decided to use the list to promote a Shoulders New Year's Eve show at the Hole versus a Gourds show the same night at Stubb's. Kev promptly slandered Shoulders. I responded by pointing out that Shoulders never composed a song as shitty as Kev's "Hookey Dump" masterpiece. Things degenerated until Kev proposed a truce, to which I responded by accusing him of being a sensitive peace-and-love hippie bastard. He got pissed and booted me off the list."
The Shoulders flap was resolved, and BAD was reinstated, though he wears his banishment like a medal of dishonor. Russell shrugs off that incident because others quickly supplanted the one with BAD.
"You get 'e-rage' on the list, and it dominates everyone's mail," explains Russell. "There have been other problems, like racial comments. Everyone has to read it all with these arguments, because people won't take them off-list. The best thing is to get them both off-list as soon as you can and tell them to deal with it."
So is the worst thing about the list having to 'play cop'?
"Naw, I kinda like it," admits Russell. "Besides, I've made some other people moderators so I don't have to do it anymore."
Post #10886 has come to be regarded as a milestone in the group's history: Amber Wagner announced the death of her brother Chris, Hank Hillbilly. A freak accident. That's how his death from a fall is described; his head hit the ground so hard he was brain-dead upon arrival at the hospital. The announcement also bore an unexpected streak of sisterly good humor that no one would have missed if it hadn't been there.
A Lot Like Tigger
"... The [organ donations were] done yesterday and many people were saved/helped. Someone got his heart about 5pm yesterday (its official stop time is 3:07pm), and we all should say an additional prayer for the brave soul that got his liver."
BAD affectionately called Chris "Denton's answer to Lester Bangs," and nearly every respondent to a survey for this story cited his death as a milestone in the community. For Amber, the list was a bittersweet comfort.
"It's like starting all over again and doing everything for the first time -- without my bubba," she laments. "It all seems so incomplete, because I can't call him to tell him the story when it's all over."
Kevin Russell eulogized Chris with classic Gourds poetry: "He had wild eyes and a cold beer. The language just poured out of him as his body tried to bounce. I remember thinking he was a lot like Tigger."
Joyce Wagner took even greater solace from the Gourds themselves when they memorialized her husband during a show.
"The band completely stopped with Kevin in the spotlight, a moment as silent as it could get in a crowded bar. As I stood there in front of the stage watching Kevin sing, tears ran down his face. He was in this moment with me. That's the very moment I formed a true love for the Gourds in my heart, when they crossed over from being friends to being family."
Eric Christian Wagner was buried in Austin Memorial Park. Among his legacies is a new watermark for the Gourds list: You were a member either "Before Chris" or "After Chris." BAD is B.C., while Lettice is A.C.
The current popular topic involves listers meeting up for the Austin City Limits Festival. The most recent controversy was a lively one, over the merits of Steve Earle. Russell recently posted about the band's arrival in Seattle, but wasn't looking for a place to crash. A list newbie recently started out on the wrong foot but seems to have assimilated well. There have been no recipes of late.
Margaret Moser is a B.C. member of the Gourds list, but just lurks.