The Sacred & the Profane
Ride along with Shinyribs
A small Buddha and toy cannon jostle on the dashboard of Kevin Russell's Ford F-150, pointed southeast to Port Aransas down Highway 181. Doug Sahm blares on the stereo and Russell sings along to "At the Crossroads," hitting the soulful high notes as he croons, "You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul."
"I don't think Doug ever knew all our names," laughs Russell from the passenger seat, reminiscing about the Gourds' recording S.D.Q. '98 with Sahm. "He'd just call Claude [Bernard] 'Flaco,' and Jimmy [Smith] 'Danko.' Doug was in his own universe."
The same could be said of Russell.
Under the persona of Shinyribs, he's created a universe colliding the absurd and sincere, where the earnestly soulful meets the ecstatically sarcastic. Like the band moniker, which Russell admits juxtaposes nonsensical "images that don't really go together, but they sound good together," Shinyribs revels in blurring the dichotomy of playful and poignant from one moment to the next.
When riding with Russell, each passing sign along the highway might elicit a melody from the prolific songwriter as he drums on the dash, hums to himself, and scribbles in a notebook overflowing with loose pages. Easy to imagine the sparks for new songs like the ludicrously anthemic "Donut Taco Palace" and oddly existential "Pack-It-Rite" lit by small-town storefronts along these familiar weekend tour routes.
At 48, Russell's finally free to follow that vagrant muse wherever it leads. Shinyribs has congealed into a tight sextet keeping pace with his unexpected turns onstage, and with the release of third LP Okra Candy earlier this spring, the group's evolved from the solo project of the Gourds former co-frontman into the full force and vision of Russell's charisma.
"That freedom's a big driver and a big motivation," affirms Russell. "Coming from the Gourds to this is just like, 'Oh my God, I'm free. I can do whatever I want.' That's really fueled me more than anything."
Gulf Coast Museum
The Back Porch Bar in Port Aransas sits on a small lot against the water, sandwiched uncomfortably between two buildings. The air's heavy with humidity, suffocating any breeze that might wash in from the Gulf. Russell sweats through his white suit halfway through the first set.
Packed to overflowing this Friday night, the venue's acoustics don't quite accommodate the weekend tourists in back. They're slow to revel, even as Russell shimmies onstage through "The Sacred & the Profane" and "Country Cool." During the second half, the frontman determines to fill the stage front with dancers.
Launching the ska-inflected "Upsetter," he gives full clearance to the duo of Mark Wilson and Tiger Anaya, aka the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns. The rhythm throbs behind Gourds drummer Keith Langford and Jeff Brown's bass, while keyboardist Winfield Cheek beams boyishly in the ecstasy of the moment. They rip through a run of covers, hitting the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone," then shifting gears into Ginuwine's "Pony" and recent smash "All About That Bass," both rerouted through Shinyribs' country-soul-funk.
By Blackstreet's "No Diggity," the crowd gyrates in unison to Russell.
"It's fun to watch new audiences go through this process," laughs Russell later. "You come out, do the first song, and they're like, 'What the fuck?' The next song they're laughing and wondering, 'Is that guy for real? This is ridiculous.' Then it happens musically and they're like, 'This is great.'
"By the end they go, 'Fuckin' A, this is awesome!'"
The Gulf Coast remains ground zero for Shinyribs, whose sound envelops every niche between Austin and New Orleans. It's where Russell began branching out the act, notably Houston's Under the Volcano in 2007. The group originally consisted of whoever the Beaumont native could cobble together in his spare time from the Gourds, until eventually solidifying with Cheek and Brown.
"I knew we had something cool, and we were getting our own fans," attests the bandleader. "The people coming to the shows didn't know who the Gourds were. It was word-of-mouth about this band. That's when I knew this could be cool. I started seeing the possibilities."
Sweeter Than the Scars
When the Gourds played their final show in October 2013, the split was anything but amicable.
"Jimmy still will not even look me in the eye, will not talk to me, will not shake my hand," says Russell with a mix of disappointment and resignation. "I've tried, but he just doesn't even acknowledge me. That sucks."
Russell and Jimmy Smith played together for over 25 years, first in the Picket Line Coyotes, and then for nearly two decades commanding Austin's most adventurous roots outfit. The Gourds were quintessentially Austin, slicing through genres with a high-minded wit and down-home ethos. The quintet boasted almost too much talent to contain (revisit "Dog Years," Sept. 23, 2011).
Following 1996 debut LP Dem's Good Beeble, the band's rise was swift and prolific. Nearly every year brought a new album, and an expanding demographic across the U.S. and Europe established the Gourds at the top of Austin artists by the turn of the century.
"Everybody in the organization will disagree with me still to this day, but I'd been there the whole time, and about 2001 or 2002, we peaked," says Russell. "And it was great, but we'd kind of flatlined. We weren't making progress and we kept making the same record. It was a good record, but it was the same record, honestly. It's the nature of the thing. It became stagnant and I could feel it.
"By 2008 or so, the economy had crashed and our scene in the Gourds was definitely going down."
As Russell began devoting more energy to Shinyribs, fissures began appearing in the Gourds.
"I was looking for a way out of the Gourds at the time," admits Russell. "I was fed up, but there was no way out. It was such a tangled web and we'd been doing it for so long. I was torn because I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I wanted to just quit and do Shinyribs, but I didn't know if my family could handle the financial setback, and there were all the other families involved.
"I actually did quit a couple times, emotionally. Jimmy and I would have big arguments after a show, and I'd just say, 'Fuck it, this is it. I'm done. This is stupid.' The band should have known, because they knew the nature of what was going on between me and Jimmy. Everybody understood it. They'd say, 'Oh, you guys will work it out,' but that's like saying, 'Churchill, you and Hitler need to just work things out.'
"We were at war and it was not going to be worked out.
"For me it was creative, and for Jimmy, I don't know," he continues. "I'm sure it was creative for him too. But it was personal as well, and you can't really separate those things, or at least we couldn't. We go so far back. There's a lot of baggage and a lot of it personal stuff that happened that's just complicated."
Russell would've pulled the plug sooner if Vanguard Records had not offered the band one final shot at breaking bigger. In 2009, the folk and blues brand set up the group in Levon Helm's Woodstock studio with Larry Campbell as producer and promise of a big marketing budget. By the time Old Mad Joy came out two years later, the label's support had vanished.
"Then it all just came to a head. The drop in income because I was doing Shinyribs more and the Gourds less was getting everyone more pissed off at me," recalls Russell. "So we had a meeting and for some reason we called it a hiatus. In typical fashion, we were going to be wishy-washy and passive-aggressive about all this. We couldn't just be clear about it and say, 'This band is done.' Even I didn't want to say it was done, because you put so much into it and it means so much."
Russell acknowledges his contribution to the band's dissolution.
"Touring and being in this lifestyle, the problems and aggravations and emotional downside of it, I was blaming it on that band," he acknowledges. "And of course when I got away from it, I realized I was still that way and it had nothing to do with those guys. I mean, a lot of it did, but I was part of the problem, and some of these were just my problems that I had to deal with.
"There was really a lot of good things that came from getting away from that situation."
The rafters of Floore's Country Store are hung with boots. The Helotes honky-tonk outside of San Antonio cuts a sharp contrast to the Back Porch's beach vibe the night before. Russell's not going to let the crowd remain seated.
The band fires up "Country Cool" and Russell leaps onto the dance floor, weaving through the audience and herding them closer to the stage. His mad joy infects the room. He's wearing an orange plaid suit and yellow shirt, belly protruding between his suspenders like a Seventies used-car salesman.
Instead of quirky pop covers, Shinyribs reels in the crowd with Steven Fromholz's "I'd Have to Be Crazy," deep soul cuts like Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Takes the Place of You," and Van Broussard's swamp pop classic "Kidnapper."
"So far it hasn't gotten to the 'Gin and Juice' levels," laughs Russell, referencing the Gourds' infamous send-up of the Snoop Dogg hit. "We do so many covers I'm careful none of them is going to take over. With the Gourds, that was the only one we did like that and it was just too popular. We should have just done more of that kind of stuff, because then it would have diffused it.
"Instead, we pushed back and tried not to play it. That didn't go over well. You get screwed either way, so you have to be careful with what you cover."
Covers align Russell's diverse sound with influences both popular and obscure, stitching disparate threads into an aesthetic fabric of unified grooves. His songs now command recognition and requests among his growing fan base, most notably the soulful ode "Sweet Potato," with Russell genuflecting like Charles Bradley. When the band closes with "Poor People's Store" from 2010 debut Well After Awhile, the crowd starts a conga line and Russell has to hustle to catch up.
"I like to go out in the crowd, and talk and shake hands. I feel it's really important to do that," he says. "We all have a way of putting ourselves in our own little boxes as we get older, and there's no reason for it. A show is the perfect place to let loose. You can have a little fun and it don't matter who you are. I like that – kind of a populist idea. It's all totally personal."
That emphasis extends to the business of Shinyribs as well. For Okra Candy, Russell passed on an offer from indie roots powerhouse Thirty Tigers to release the album himself. The decision reflects the realities of music business for him: control over his career.
"As long as I can make records myself and sell them to my fans and have some kind of distribution and control over that, it frees me up in a lot of ways, financially and creatively," he offers. "I'm going to sell the most physical product at shows and regionally at stores like Waterloo or Cactus in Houston, so we shake their hands and make it a real local deal. I like that."
Well After Awhile
Red-suit time tonight at the Broken Spoke.
An A-list assemblage of Austin music has gathered both onstage and in the crowd to pay tribute to Doug Sahm and close out the Kickstarter campaign for Joe Nick Patoski's documentary Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. Suit or no, Russell's a natural fit for the fête, an omnivore of Texas music content to reign regionally under his own terms.
"I'm still trying to figure out what it means, being a regional artist," he says. "I went after the national thing, and it worked for a while, but the amount of time to put into it is astronomical. And now we have kids and we just don't want to be gone that much. It's easier this way for us, and makes more sense for our lives. You do trade off getting in the national spotlight, but honestly, I don't really care that much about it. All that matters is the moment, the stage, and the night you're playing.
"If those people love it and it's great, then who cares?"
As he steps to the mic, the house band strikes the low, smooth groove of "At the Crossroads." Russell's soulful voice sails through the throng of tightly packed two-steppers.
You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul.