Still Good Beeble: The Catalog

Still Good Beeble: The Catalog
Still Good Beeble: The Catalog

Among the notable Austin releases of 1996 was one titled Dem's Good Beeble by a relatively unknown fourpiece called the Gourds. It contained 16 short, original compositions with titles like "Piss & Moan Blues," "When Wine Was Cheap," and "Dying of the Pines" that were by turns deceptively simple foot-stomping charmers and downright inspired bits of Americana. Dem's Good Beeble was like a signpost reading "Welcome to the Land of Gourds and Plenty."

Still Good Beeble: The Catalog

"I'm not scared to be a coward unless I'm drunk and missing for days," came the mournful voice of Kevin Russell, moaning his way through "Trampled by the Sun." "Oh, I'll consider superstition and the reason for Apollo." It was obvious the Gourds were no hicks from the sticks rendered eloquent by a bottle of whiskey and a joint. In just one album, the band had referenced Chuckles the Clown ("Caledonia") and knocked out a lament Tom Waits would envy ("Honduras").

Still Good Beeble: The Catalog

The beautiful crux of the Dem's Good Beeble lay between the lyrics of Jimmy Smith and Kevin Russell, delivered like street-corner poetry in songs like "Clear Night" and "Pine Tar Ramparts," and the rustic lo-fi arrangement of songs such as "Makes Me Roll," not to mention being able to throw in a word like "circumlocution" into the lyrical mix. It was a hell of a debut. Could lightning strike twice?

Stadium Blitzer, released in 1998, was Gourd-speak for "yes." Sixteen tracks again knitted together a rough fabric, bright and homespun as patchwork calico and just as multicolored. Their loosey-goosey instrumentation coalesced on wonderfully quirky songs like "LGO," "Coppermine," "Dyin' Diamond," and "Magnolia," as if they were performing on the bed of a pickup truck and it were the most perfect stage in the world. Their heartfelt delivery on "Raining in Port Arthur" gave a patina of sentimentality seldom ascribed to the grim refinery port, but the tongue-in-cheek exuberance of "I Ate the Haggis" and nasal charm of "Pushed Her Down" kept them from landing in the Too Serious folder of the Roots-Rock file.

The eight-track EP gogitchershinebox followed later that year with five live tracks and three studio ones. It reprised "Lament," "Magnolia," "Plaid Coat," and "Maria" from Blitzer, and "Trampled by the Sun" from Dem's Good Beeble, but it was the two opening cover tunes that started a buzz: a mandolin-driven version of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and a brilliantly rendered version of Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice." Smith and Russell's harmonies soared and popped on the former rap song, skirting the misogynist lyrics with hillbilly naivete. The Gourds had firmly found their voice and the result was an astounding recording.

Ghosts of Hallelujah scared up even more critical praise for the band. The addition of former Wilco fiddler/banjo player Max Johnston gave the band a fat, solid sound they didn't need before, but now couldn't do without. Johnston melded with Claude Bernard's accordion and drummer Keith Langford (who had replaced Charlie Llewellin after Beeble), smoothing ragged edges and sanding rough spots. Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith brought in 15 new songs of mournful love, breaking up, faraway places close to the heart, and occasional bugs. The memorable "Gangsta Lean" owed a spiritual debt to The Band and "(A New Way of) Grievin' and Smokiní" framed the band's near-legendary boozy harmonies with panache.

Ghosts was also the last block in the square of CDs the Gourds put out in the Nineties. All of them, due for reissue on Sugar Hill (Beeble and Ghosts October 31; Shinebox and Stadium early next year), suggest but do not accurately portray their astonishing live performances that embrace an inexhaustible repertoire and a healthy dose of covers from sources disparate as Doug Sahm and the Pogues. This makes sense: If Hank Williams had been the son of Mother Maybelle Carter and Leadbelly and grown up in Texas, you can bet he would sound a lot like the Gourds.

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