Songs of Innocence and Experience
The Gourds Kiss the Winged Life as It Flies
The bathroom in the Steamy Bowl is a place that prompts a good stirring of intellect. The fleeting nature of earthly beauty and happiness, and the necessity of an artist's understanding of temporal pleasures are spelled out with calligraphs in a coloring book for all who take a seat.
"He who binds himself to a joy does the winged life destroy, but he who kisses it as it flies lives in Eternity's sun rise," for instance, is credited to one "William Blake Fruitcake."
It's here, or more accurately, at the Steamy Bowl, that the Gourds were born. It's a dumpy little house set back from a small residential street on the north side of town, a shack being slowly consumed by the gigantic crepe myrtle trees that linger over it like doting relatives. Especially in this blistering Texas summer, the place takes on the role of turgid incubator, a crooked little hothouse where music and words germinate and flower into song -- or wilt, crumple, and dissolve back into the earth.
Jimmy Smith, bassist and songwriter for the Gourds, lives there. The place has been home to the band since its beginnings in the summer of 1994. The Gourds have since passed through a celebrated infancy and a rocky adolescence and grown into one of the most revered bands in Austin, all under the eaves of Smith's unsteady cottage. Used to be the walls of the small main room were covered with wisdom from a Sharpie -- drunkenly scrawled stretches of poetry, lyrics, and drawings that would spring from or lead to inspiration. This is all very much the hallmark of a band starting out -- excited, energetic, and armed to the teeth with songs and more songs.
All that's gone now. The house is still there, and the trees, but the transcript of those early years has been whitewashed into history. Smith is a different man now, and the Gourds, in many ways, are a different band. They've got a new album due out next week, Bolsa de Agua, that will be released in Europe on their longtime label Munich Records and in the states by the highly respected American roots label Sugar Hill, who are also reissuing the band's entire back catalog. While every Gourds rehearsal once took place in this room, operations have recently been moved northward to the house of Max Johnston, fifth and newest member of the Gourds.
But this is now. First, then.
Kevin Russell, who plays mandolin and guitar while also singing and writing a good portion of the Gourds' music, was born in Beaumont in 1967, which makes him 33 years old.
Songs of Innocence
"The same age Christ was when he was crucified," he points out.
He claims a normal Texas upbringing, his family being involved first in the Baptist Church and then later the Church of Christ. His father directed church choirs and played some guitar, giving Kevin his first six-stringer, a Mel Bay book for the chords, and a lesson in "Proud Mary" to start him off. Things were good, until his family up and moved to Humble, Texas, near Houston.
"I hated it," he says. "I stayed in my room at that point, learned to write songs and played guitar. It was really the best thing that coulda happened to me -- that's when I really got into writing songs. Those were the woodshed years.
"I would either be in my room playing guitar, or I'd be walking around the neighborhood with my boombox, blaring music, staring at people," he laughs. "I hid inside music, and I guess I still do. It's kind of the place that I stay -- kind of my social defense mechanism. I think a lot of musicians are that way."
Russell learned about music the way most kids do -- from the radio and from older people playing records for him. His dad was all George Jones and Merle Haggard.
"My uncle used to play Willie Nelson records and Jerry Jeff records, and tell me these guys are from Austin. So I always had this idea about Austin. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to come to Austin to play music. It was such a romantic image, these guys playing music up in Austin."
He formed bands when he could, playing covers and originals both, and got his first experience in front of an audience at a high school dance in a band called Malice. It didn't go so well.
"I had this old guitar and a giant Sixties amp, like something Hendrix woulda played. The place was packed, like that Nirvana video, a gym full of people. We started playing, and like the second or third song the place was cleared out. I was so bummed. Our parents took us to Denny's after that and gave us a pep talk, 'Don't give up, don't give up.'
"It was sad -- a valuable lesson though. It can never get that bad again. I started at the bottom."
Jimmy Smith's beginnings were similarly auspicious. Born in Dallas in 1968, Smith spent his first years on the globe in Oak Cliff before moving to Plano. He spent K-12 there, lingering on until he was about 20. His education in music started with the drums in the middle school band, where his teacher made a lasting impression on the young Smith.
"Mr. Atkins was the teacher, this prick who would make fun of me," explains Smith, approximating the man's harsh, snarling twang. 'Jimmy gonna play the cymbals! Jimmy gonna play bass drum!' Those are easy, just rest, rest, rest, boom! All the other kids were like, rata ratta-rrrratatatat on the snares. I got out of that shit."
Smith stuck with the drums, though, and later picked up the guitar and a Mel Bay book of his own. He learned his way around a guitar, and when it came time to seek out others with the music bug and start up a garage band, he moved to the bass, because everybody else wanted to play guitar. Following the dreams and the course of action of so many other American kids who wanted to be rock stars, Smith and his cohorts began to take over his family's garage, where they'd play cover tunes, chew tobacco, and drink stolen beer.
"I'm sure it was the same in many garages all over the country," he says. "But this was our garage, and the fantasies were flying."
Not that fantasies are always fulfilling.
"Everybody has a time in their life where there is an incredible amount of fear about the future. My time was when I graduated high school. There was nothing to hold on to, absolutely nothing. School was going nowhere and the family was fucked up. The only thing worse than school was a day gig, and I had to get one of those. God, that sucked."
Meanwhile, across the border in Shreveport, Louisiana, Russell had started the band that would lead him to Texas and to Smith. A new club called the Killer Poodle offered a stage for local bands who were following avenues outside of country or SRV, which is precisely where the Picket Line Coyotes were headed. Russell, drummer Dave Green, a brief succession of bass players, and a guitarist named Rob Bernard staked their claim to the Killer Poodle and to Shreveport.
Coyote, Coyote, Burning Bright
"That was a real important time, that club,"says Russell. "It brought a lot of people in Shreveport together."
Russell met Bernard there, as well as Rob's brother Claude, who, with accordion in hand would later help found the Gourds. But not yet. Smith was busy discovering rock & roll outside the comfy confines of his garage.
"I had never been in Deep Ellum," remembers Smith. "I'd get lost in Dallas. To go there was pretty scary."
A friend dragged him down to the burgeoning enclave for live music to see a bill that included a headlining set by Austin's True Believers.
"That was the show that really scared me in the music way,"nods Smith. "It seems like there was all this fear floating around then, like to get this over with, figure out what the hell I was doing. Watching the True Believers scared the fuck out of me. I thought, 'That's what I'm gonna be doing.'
"I looked at those guys, and they were looking pretty shabby. At that point in time, they were pretty ragged out, living very hard, and it showed. I'm this 16-year-old kid from the suburbs looking at these guys thinking, 'That's what I gotta do?'
"I didn't know it at the time, but that's what was scaring me. The music was so loud and powerful, I loved it."
In 1988 the Coyotes moved to Dallas, and shortly thereafter lost their bass player, whereupon Smith joined the band. The Coyotes were the essence of a young DIY punk rock act. They all lived together, did regional tours in a station wagon, and partied a lot. Soon, each of them began to carve out his own means of expression.
"I was with the Coyotes for two years," says Smith. "I was just a sponge, I really soaked it all up. It was like a magician taking on an apprentice and showing him all his tricks. That's the best I've ever felt. All this fear and questioning and wondering what was gonna happen -- I didn't have a catalyst. All there was was confusion. You can imagine the relief I felt when I hooked up with those guys. One day I was getting fired from a shitty job, the next day I was onstage playing with a really good band.
"Once I got in with the Coyotes, they were some ragged-out looking guys, too. But I found out it was just some guys getting along playing music, not some Johnny Thunders thing where we're all strung out on the horse, you know? It was mostly me being a naive suburban kid. Really, it's all about finding your community, trying to fit in, trying to find respect. That's all anyone wants, whatever line of work they're in."
After a stint in Dallas, the Coyotes packed up and moved down to Austin. The band was built on the songs that Russell was writing, and as those songs got quieter and the band's sound more stripped-down and minimalistic, the splintering began. Russell's writing was growing downward and outward, exploring the roots he left along the Gulf Coast, and as the country crept in, Bernard slipped out. He wanted to rock, and that was that.
When the Picket Line Coyotes broke up, Smith left town and moved east to Nacogdoches where his girlfriend was in college. He stayed for a year, writing songs and busking on campus.
"I was getting over my inhibitions about playing in front of people with these fresh, stupid songs, because the first ones you write are pretty awful," chuckles Smith. "I'd tape record a song and send it back to Kev to see what he thought, and he was always very encouraging. He said I was writing good songs, and that's all I needed to hear. I kept writing and writing."
By the time Smith's relationship in Nacogdoches "went south," he had notebooks and tapes busting with songs and was ready to get back to Austin and make some music. By that time, Russell had hooked up with another guitar player from Shreveport named Ron Byrd in a duo called the Grackles. Mostly they played Sixth Street's long-gone home for singer-songwriters, Chicago House, and when Smith returned to town, he joined in the action along with Claude Bernard, who stood in the back playing "Mo Tucker-style drums." The three disparate songwriting styles of Russell, Smith, and Byrd didn't mesh well, however, so Smith went his own way. But not for long.
Smith and Russell knew they needed to be playing together, writing songs, and soon enough the two, along with Claude Bernard and drummer Charlie Llewellin, were meeting up at the Steamy Bowl and working out some tunes.
Bottle Night, 3am
"Charlie was perfect," says Russell. "He was enthusiastic, lived close in the neighborhood, and we had a real nice thing for a while. We weren't in any hurry to do anything, we just wanted to play songs together. Charlie was a self-starter, though, and he got us a show, just came to practice one night in late '95 and was like, 'Hey, we have a show.' The first one was at Another Cup of Coffee up on campus. We had been playing for a while and had a lot of songs. Claude was still playing this toy accordion."
Bernard eventually took up playing a big Wurlitzer accordion, using it mostly as a keyboard and ignoring the buttons. His brother Rob's junior by six years, Claude had moved to Austin for the purpose of attending UT about the same time the Picket Line Coyotes pulled into town. Separated from his older sibling after their parents died, Claude and middle Bernard brother John had been living in Bedford, Texas, with one of their aunts. Claude had not been happy.
"I left after school one day, my first year in high school," he recalls. "John had left already to live with Rob up in Garland. I took some extra shirts to school, and Rob and John came and picked me up in a dune buggy. We hopped on a plane and went to Baton Rouge."
After finishing high school in Baton Rouge, Claude moved to Austin. College didn't stick, and after playing with the Grackles for a while, he got a call from Russell to come by the Steamy Bowl and play hooter with them. The hooter led to the toy accordion, which led to the Wurlitzer; suddenly Claude, who had played violin, piano, and guitar, was an accordion player. He settled into the role nicely, helped along by bottle night.
"We used to have a thing we called bottle night," explains Russell, "like that line from 'Grievin' and Smokin.'" We'd all bring a bottle of Irish whiskey and drink our asses off all night. Just the guys. We'd get drunk and play music and write all over Jimmy's walls with a marker. All kinds of poetry and art went up all over the walls. Those bottle nights were when a lot of stuff would happen, a lot of music came about ...
"It's not the same with us now," he laughs. "We don't drink like that anymore, do those kinds of things. But for a while, it was that way. That house has everything to do with the Gourds."
Our man William Blake writes, "Those who restrain their desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained." From the outset, the Gourds were not likely to fall into this trap. Their music was a blender grinding country, blues, folk, swamp boogie, and enough rock & roll together to keep it from becoming any of these, and in the early days, the abundance of creative power kept the whole thing barreling ahead. Their first show was followed by more shows and consistently, if slowly growing, crowds. Then came a shot on KUT's Live Set, which they turned into a tape that, for a while, blared from stereos and loudspeakers in bars and coffee shops across the city. "Two huge things happened to us in that one night," points out Russell. "We played Live Set at KUT, and right after that we played the Austin Acoustic Music Festival at the Electric Lounge. We put out a tape of that Live Set, it got really popular, and was playing everywhere for a while. Our set at the festival got played on the Austin Music Network for a while. After that, our crowd started growing, we could see it -- 1995 was a big year for us."
The following year would be even bigger when Mike Stewart, who later produced the Gourdsí brought some executives from the Dutch label Munich Records to the band's South by Southwest showcase. They liked it, hung out, and before the group knew it, they were making their first album for them. For that, they headed out to Laurels Ranch, a 600-acre spread in the Hill Country between Fredricksburg and Comfort owned by the family of Russell's wife Robin, which is also Keith Langford's family.
"To me, that's a very sacred place that I love dearly," says South Texas native Langford. "I always dreamed of making a record out there, and before I knew it, my brother-in-law is out there with this band that kicks ass making these great records. I couldn't believe it."
The ranch provided a comfortable atmosphere where the band could stay for a couple weeks at a time without a studio meter running, a fact that contributed to the easy, natural sound of the Gourds' debut, Dem's Good Beeble.
"Beeble is a document of the infancy of the band," says Russell, "of when we were first starting; it has that naive quality, lots of space in it. It's a strange record, a lot of people love it. It has that feel, a real fresh thing about it. Beeble just happened, and Mike Stewart was there to capture it."
The band began to tour, gathering a core following across the states and in Europe as well, which they admit was a big part of the attraction of signing to a Dutch label with virtually no presence in the states.
"That was the kicker," acknowledges Smith. "Here's this new band that's kind of on the rise in Austin -- let's just take 'em to Europe. Who doesn't want to travel? That's the most enticing thing about that point in any band's existence, the opportunity to travel. There's no way we'd make it over there without the assistance of a record company."
In Europe, Munich is on a par with Sugar Hill as far as releasing and distributing roots music, and in fact, the two have sustained a relationship for quite some time. The Gourds couldn't be happier.
"They do it for love of the music,"explains Russell. "So many people in the music business will tell you that's why they do it, but you look at their actions and that's not the case. The deal Munich gave us is we don't get a lot of money, but we don't need a lot of money. And it's all non-recoupable. If they give us a set amount of money for recording, it doesn't come out of our royalties. American companies all do that. If they give you $50,000 to make a record, you're gonna pay that back to them out of your sales, which is bullshit. You're basically investing in their business. They don't have to put anything up. It's just a stupid deal.
"That's why we love them too -- it's a fair deal for us. We get paid from the very first record we sell. And they support us, they do right by us. In return, we have freedom to do whatever we want. They've never told us to remix a song or put horns on a song. They've never asked us what's the single or how many hits we're gonna have, none of that bullshit."
About this same time, Keith Langford hooked up with two sisters named Deborah Kelly and Amy Boone in a band called the Damnations. They were loosely connected to the Gourds, as Smith had played drums for them before, and Kevin is married to Keith's sister.
"Those were the innocent days," recalls Langford. "The Gourds were the shit, they were going to Europe, and they were playing great, every night. We had this little band called the Damnations and people liked us too, 'cause we were kind of like the Gourds but a little different. It was so good back then. Then, the bomb hit."
In 1998, the Gourds released their second album for Munich, Stadium Blitzer, and went on tour once again. Blitzer is brilliant, more sonically ambitious than Beeble, and more far-ranging in the writing and the instrumentation. From the outside, then, the album and the tour that followed were smashing successes. Inside the band, however, there were problems.
Proverbs of Hell and High Water
"We looked for someone to market Blitzer in the states, and we got Watermelon/Sire,"says Russell. "That was a rush deal. I wish we would have looked around. If we'd have talked to Mark Rubin, he would have told us what was happening with Watermelon. We wouldn't have done it."
As everyone knows by now, Watermelon went bankrupt and thereafter had lots of music by lots of bands and the money that came from them tied up in court. The release of Stadium Blitzer was held up initially, and the Gourds have yet to see a single penny from that or its follow-up EP, Gogitchyershinebox, which features the infamous cover of Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice." After some maneuvers on the part of Sugar Hill and Watermelon's Heinz Geissler, the Gourds finally secured the rights to those releases for Sugar Hill, and the Watermelon business came to an end.
There was internal strife as well. The chemistry of the band, while seemingly indestructible to their fans, was in big trouble.
"What the audience saw as chemistry was gut-rot," say Smith. "That was one of the darkest times of the band -- the ass-end of Charlie being with us. We had so much ahead of us, but we all felt that musically we couldn't achieve what we wanted to get with Charlie. It was hard."
"I kept clinging to Brian Eno talking about how the best bands build on their limitations," says Russell. "I kept saying we gotta stick to Charlie. He's one of us. Claude was the same way, very loyal to Charlie, he's our friend. Charlie got us to where we were, he was the brains on that end, he took care of things. We didn't wanna entertain the idea of not having him. But one night in Portland, Maine, he was dragging the beat, and I snapped.
"I turned and was like, 'What's your fucking problem? Why can't you fucking play?' We finished the show in a huff, went to the dressing room, and had a big argument about it. I was an asshole. He was like, 'You're right, I'm not happy, Jimmy's not happy, friendships are suffering.' So that was that. After that, the rest of the tour went great!"
"None of them will ever understand what they had with Charlie," sighs Langford. "It was something really great. They wanted so bad to have somebody that could just play and go on tour and keep time for a whole show. The time is the easy part, the hard part is having it be something good."
It was obvious to everyone involved who should take Llewellin's place behind the drum kit, but it wasn't quite that simple. Russell stayed in contact with Langford from the road, however, and when the Gourds got back to Austin, they set up a short tour of Texas and Oklahoma City with the Damnations, who agreed that Langford would play drums for both bands. That, as they say, was all she wrote. After a show in Denton, Russell says the changeover was all but a done deal.
"[Deborah and Amy] were pretty drunk and were like, 'Man, Keith is so good with y'all, we gotta figure something out.' I was like, 'Yes!' They were the ones we had to convince."
It went down one night soon after, recalls Langford.
"Deb, Amy, Rob and I went to the Chili Parlor one night, and Deborah was like, 'Alright, you're fired. You're not in the Damnations anymore. We all knew it was happening, so that was very cool of them. It was tough. And then they got this big record deal [with Sire], and I was already in the Gourds, and almost all of that was happening at the same time. I got to play with them on Half Mad Moon. I was so proud of that record. I think it's one of the best things I've been a part of. To their credit they didn't just say, 'Fuck you.' For a while there, I was in the two best bands in town."
Shortly after Langford joined up, the Gourds were presented with the opportunity of a lifetime: to record some songs with Texas music legend Doug Sahm. In the end, the album and projected collaborations beyond it were frustrated by logistics, the Gourds ultimately playing with Sahm on only two tracks from S.D.Q. '98, but, maintains the band, it could have been so much more.
Songs of Experience
"One of the highlights of my musical life was playing with that guy and getting to be friends with him,"says Russell. "A lot of things died with him -- he knew so much about music. One day he said to me, and it meant so much ..."
Russell breaks into a soft, growling imitation of Sahm.
"'You know, in the early Seventies, man, Willie was the old guy. He brought it to us and gave it to us to carry it on, and that's what I'm doing with you guys. You guys are it. You guys take it and go with it.'
"We coulda made such a cool record with that guy if he woulda let us be involved in it."
The tour that followed Blitzer brought about the beginnings of another major change in the Gourds' lineup. For SXSW 98, the Gourds were offered a second showcase, late on Sunday night at the Hole in the Wall. Robert Lee, a local poet and friend of Russell's, informed him that a friend of his, Max Johnston, would be in town for the annual music conference and that they should play some music together. Russell extended an invitation through Lee, and Johnston showed up at the gig, fiddle in hand.
"He came and sat in, and it was great," grins Russell. "I never imagined playing with somebody who played like that, even though I always imagined having a multi-instrumentalist in the band. The guys were sort of like, 'No, we don't want to upset the chemistry,' and I was like, 'Shit, our chemistry is nicotine and alcohol, my friends.' After we played with Max, though, the guys were blown away too."
Before coming to the Gourds, Johnston, son of renowned Dallas bluegrass musician "Dollar" Bill Johnston, had quite a musical career of his own. Learning to play banjo at eight years old, Max traveled with his dad to numerous bluegrass festivals, honing his skills over long nights pickin' around a campfire. Banjo led to guitar led to mandolin led to dobro, and by the time he left high school, the younger Johnston was proficient enough on stringed instruments to earn a spot in sister Michelle Shocked's touring band.
At the time, Shocked was on some major tours, and the responsibility and expectations were not lost on Johnston. On one particular bill, Johnston was playing with his sister, who was sharing the stage with The Band, as well as Taj Mahal, and a band from Illinois called Uncle Tupelo.
"Michelle really wanted me to meet these guys," says Johnston. "I did end up sitting in with them, playing some songs with them. The tour collapsed halfway through, though. The Band decided they wouldn't do the tour any more, so Tupelo decided they'd bail too. I remember as they were leaving they said, 'You staying or you coming with us?' I said, 'Well, I'll go with you.' So I left with them."
The breakup of Uncle Tupelo, for whom the No Depression movement is named (it's the title of the band's first album), is a landmark in popular music by many people's standards. At the time, though, Johnston was just rolling with it. When the band broke up shortly thereafter, he went with Jeff Tweedy, one of the band's two songwriters, and helped get Wilco started. When he was fired, Johnston formed his own band, the Pony Stars, and toured coast to coast with them, opening for Michelle Shocked.
Before the Pony Stars had a chance to do anything besides complete that tour, Johnston was recruited by Catherine Irwin, singer and songwriter for Chicago's Freakwater. In other words, before coming to the Gourds, Johnston had worked up a résumé for himself that would have anyone in alt.country drooling themselves.
After sitting in with the Gourds at their SXSW showcase, when he was offered a slot in the band, Johnston didn't hesitate. He joined for the recording of the Blitzer follow-up, The Ghosts of Hallelujah, and with little practice and an almost complete unfamiliarity with the new batch of songs, Johnston turned in some instrumental performances that not only add another whole dimension to the Gourds' sound but elevate it to an entirely new level. The fiddle featured on "Up on High" is just as stunning as the fiddle he laid on Tupelo's "Slate," which is to say, world-class. And now, for the first time, he's contributing more than just a solo or an accompaniment.
All the Labor
"More than any other band I've played with, I'm allowed to be myself," enthuses Johnston. "They encourage me to be in the band, to be a fifth member of the band, not just a side guy. I've enjoyed being a side guy, all these amazing people I've played with, but I just kind of floated around. But what I've created with the Gourds is no one's creation but mine.
"This is more mine than anything I've ever been involved with. I have a voice in this band. With Tupelo, it was like, 'Wow, I'm in Uncle Tupelo,' you know? But I didn't have much input. Here, I finally found a group of guys who listen to me, we communicate on a level I haven't before."
That voice is something Johnston is only recently finding. He attended UT for a short time in the early part of the last decade, with the intentions of getting an English degree, but writing term papers and faxing them in while on the road with Uncle Tupelo proved a bit more than the 22-year-old could manage. Still, a common thread that runs through all of Johnston's projects is that he's been a sideman for some of the best songwriters around -- Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Michelle Shocked, and Catherine Irwin. Among them, Johnston counts Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith. Now Johnston is writing songs too.
"In practice, if Kevin brings a new song or if Jimmy brings a new song, I'm humbled more than anything," Johnston says. "I'm always like, 'I'm gonna go back and retool this song before I show it to them.' They're both such amazing songwriters. But it's also made me realize I do want to write songs. I love playing banjo and fiddle. I can hold my own. But even if I was to be the greatest fiddle player ever, it wouldn't be enough anymore. I have a voice, and I want to sing. I hope I can bring myself to do that more."
The Gourds, as they stand now, are a more cohesive unit, technically stronger and more aesthetically powerful than they've ever been. They've also found a new home at Jovita's, the South Austin Tex Mex eatery and casa for down-home music. They pack the place most Saturday nights, digging into a well of songs so deep it seems bottomless, drawing on an instrumental arsenal that leaves their legions of fans reeling, over and over again.
Their new album, Bolsa de Agua, is a solid showcase of their new existence, a coming-out party for the Gourds that were meant to be. They have embraced the "winged life," as the walls of the Steamy Bowl's latrine have implored them to do for so long. The grip has remained loose, but change and joy have remained constant and intact. Meanwhile, the music just gets better and better.