By Michael Corcoran
Tuesday’s long-awaited release of Okra Candy, the third album by Austin band Shinyribs, comes without much fanfare. Singer-songwriter-choreographer Kevin Russell and his band aren’t playing a record release party this week and there’s not an autograph session at Waterloo. “We just wanted to get this thing out,” Russell said of the album, co-produced by Russell and George Reiff like the two previous. “We finished this thing a year and a half ago.” Before they plan any hoopla, they just want to hold the damn CD in their hands.
Eighteen months in the can must feel like a jail sentence to the prolific Russell, who recorded the first two Shinyribs LPs Well After Awhile (2010) and Gulf Coast Museum (2013) while a lead member of roots powerhouse the Gourds. The holdup came when respected Nashville label/ distributor 30 Tigers became interested in putting out Okra, which has a bigger sound, with more horns and violins, than the first two Shinyribs LPs. Russell and company were shooting for a summer release, but 30 Tigers wanted to push it back to January 2015, to get a full marketing campaign in place.
In November 2014, however, Russell had a change of heart. He decided that he didn’t want his band to be on a label. He didn’t want to be a national act, trying to break into new markets through constant touring. He knew there’d be expectations and demands and he’s played that game and it wore him down. With three kids in school – Guthrie 17, Lily 14, Harlan 9- Russell doesn’t want to get too far away for too long. Ain’t worth it.
So Shinyribs took their record back and is putting it out themselves. “If I was really career conscious I would’ve moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago,” said Russell, 48. “But I like where I’m at, being a regional act.” Shinyribs is big in New Orleans and that’s enough for Russell. But even more importantly, Shinyribs has gotten big in Russell’s hometown of Beaumont. He was raised in the Golden Triangle, where his dad was in the oil equipment business, but grew up in Shreveport. That’s where music became his obsession, his life.
Okra Candy, named after a sign Russell imagined next to a freeze-dried snack at Whole Foods, sounds rooted in East Texas, with a lyrical soul yearning for Austin and the beat in love with the Bigger Easy. It’s a small town/ big dreams record, vibing off Little Feat and Flannery OC. If Okra Candy was a racehorse, it would run too wide to win the race, but, wow, wasn’t that a nice run.
Okra lacks a song like “Who Built the Moon” and “Sweeter Than the Scars,” the first two LPs’ leadoff tracks, that you’ll play over again after the first time. It’s a little more of a groove record; a little less KGSR candy. But Russell’s lyrics raise all boats, as you can see on “Walt Disney,” which is about a couple living in different emotional states: “No don’t try to kiss me with that alcohol on your breath/ You actin’ so sweet and so fresh/ It’s the final act of MacBeth/ You actin’ like it’s Walt Disney.”
It’s a song that could’ve been inspired, in part, by Russell’s time with the Gourds, which might be the first successful band that broke up because of dancing. Russell’s hoofin,’ not the audience’s. You see, in the past few years, Kev has become as much Twyla Tharpe as Sister Rosetta, with his interpretive dancing becoming a focal point of the performance. Sometimes it’s goofy, but sometimes, as when Russell seems to lift himself from his knees to the sky on “Sweet Potato,” the movements are downright inspirational.
When the Gourds started in Austin in 1994, Russell used to stand there and play guitar and mandolin and sing. Then in the band’s last few years, he started hamming it up and his expressive romps (“my main man was Rerun from What’s Happening”) became a crowd-pleasing distraction. Which didn’t help an already-tense situation of having two frontmen who didn’t really get along.
The Gourds were the Texas version of Uncle Tupelo- good sex/ bad marriage- and after they split, Shinyribs became the Wilco. Which would make the Hard Pans of Jimmy Smith and Claude Bernard, the Son Volt.
Russell says he now dances the way he does, often affecting an effeminate pantomime like Daffy Duck in drag, because he feels completely free onstage. And because the crowds, which have doubled for the ‘ribs in the past two years, seem to enjoy all that movement. Many of them even stop talking.
The career turning-point show was probably the twice-postponed KGSR “Blues On the Green” event with Tameca Jones in August. Shinyribs, which has added the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns to the core of Langford, bassist Jeff Brown and keyboardist Winfield Cheek, drew 10,000 fans to Zilker Park. Making full use of the big stage, the band proved to be large enough for the crowd, which hailed them as rock stars. “We haven’t really played many small clubs in town since then,” said Russell, who led 5,000 fans in a conga line when Shinyribs headlined the Statesman’s “Rock the Lot” concert in March.
Shiny’s draw will be similarly heavy at the Old Settler’s Music Festival (April 16-19), when they take over the Gourds’ old Saturday night closing slot at the Bluebonnet Stage, then play the loose campgrounds jam on Sunday.
The band has come quite a ways since 2007, when Russell started Shinyribs as a Gourds side project, earmarking the $500 a month he got from a gig at Houston bar Under the Volcano for a new family car. Boy, did he love that freedom. Just jump in the car with a guitar and ukulele and plenty of time to think about songs. New ones, old ones, mine and your’n. Nobody bickering about band bullshit. Democracy may be an OK way to run a country, but it will fuck up a setlist like you wouldn’t believe.
At around the time Russell was closing in on the first Shinyribs LP in 2010, the Gourds were going gangbusters. The adventurous five-piece recorded the album Old Mad Joy at Levon Helms’ studio in Woodstock, NY, toured to a growing cult audience across the country and became the subject of the terrific documentary All the Labor. But Russell wasn’t as happy in the Gourds as he was in Shinyribs, who were lucky to draw 50 people to the Saxon Pub. He describes his time with the more popular band, founded on a deal that he and Smith would split lead vocal and songwriting duties 50/50, as “a constant tug of war.”
Russell let go of the rope in 2013 and took his brother-in-law, Gourds drummer Langford, with him. The Gourds played their last show in October 2013 in Austin and Russell said he very seriously doubts that the band will ever play together again. “Jimmy still hasn’t talked to me,” Russell said of the post- breakup situation. “I’ve tried to talk to him, but he wants nothing to do with me.”
Russell and Smith go back 25 years, having first played together in Shreveport-to-Dallas band Picket Line Coyotes. When the original Coyotes bassist got married and settled down, Smith, a kid from Plano, auditioned for the job and got it. “It was actually George Reiff who sent him our way,” said Russell. Smith tried out as guitarist for Reiff’s band Big Loud Dog, but when he admitted he was really a bass player, but desperately wanted to be in a band on the Deep Ellum scene, Reiff told him the Coyotes were looking for a bassist. “Jimmie was the fresh blood we needed,” Russell said. “He was this really great bass player with tons of enthusiasm. We would’ve broken up if it wasn’t for him.”
The band moved down to Austin in 1991 and did, eventually, break up. But Russell and Smith kept writing and regrouped first as the Grackles and then the Gourds. Regardless of what they were called, there was a stark new direction in the songs that Russell was writing. He became infatuated with “the Bristol Sessions” of 1927, as well as with the work of John Lomax, the Austin-based musicologist who hunted indigenous music all over the world with his son Alan. Lomax discovery Leadbelly was from Shreveport. And the interest in “old-timey” music had been branching out from there for years.
In concert, Shinyribs almost never plays Gourds songs, and when they do it’ll be a number which started with Shinyribs, but then the Gourds liked it and recorded it. Many more of the tunes are songs Russell pitched to the rest of the Gourds, who went “meh.” Okra Candy’s strangest tune, the psychedelic ska number “Upsetter” is a Gourds reject (“It’s a tip of the hat to our sax player Mark Wilson, who played with Burning Spear for years”), as is “Dead Batteries,” which sounds inspired by Russell’s favorite Elvis Costello album King of America.
“Some Shinyribs songs, like ‘Country Love,’ became Gourds songs, but most of them I’d just keep on the side,” Russell said. “They were for something else.”
They were for Shinyribs, a band every bit as satisfying as the Gourds if singing and songwriting are your things. The arrangements are more direct, the lyrics more linear. Songs such as “Poor People’s Store” and “Country Cool” from Well After Awhile have become tiny anthems for understanding that we see the same Texas from the windows of our moving vehicles. We see “Donut Taco Palace” on the way to Oak Hill and it becomes a funny chant in our minds. Another song from the new LP, “Feels Like Rain,” hopes to similarly connect. It seems to be about Austin nostalgia, but it’s also about forging ahead in the midst of great changes. “You might lose your mind, but you can’t lose your soul” he sings, like a modern touch on Doug Sahm. The “you” he’s referring to is Austin.
With acts like Shinyribs and the Hard Pans and the Gourds before them, Austin won’t completely lose what has made it such a special place. There’s extra beauty in the holding on.
Feels Like Rain
Words and music by Kevin Russell
Austin is the only place
I ever seen an angels face
Austin is the only town
I ever seen an angel drown
In a sea of pain and regret
I just now remembered
I swore I’d never forget
But ain’t that the way it goes when we get old
You might lose yer mind but you can’t lose yer soul
It don’t matter where the memory was gone
It’s still like lighting yerself on fire in yer Own home
I can’t recall a face or a name
Like even when you can’t see it
You can still feel the rain
Oh lord I can feel it
And it feels like rain