Kevin Russell claims he began his Shinyribs project because he bought a new car and needed a second gig to cover the monthly note.
Be that as it may, it's also apparent that with two other songwriters in his main gig for the past 16 years — Austin gonzo-roots ensemble the Gourds — the ultra-prolific Russell needed a separate outlet. His first album as Shinyribs, Well After Awhile (Nine Mile Records), was just released to rave reviews.
"Yeah, I have a lot of songs," chuckles the former Houstonian. "Gobs and gobs buried all over my yard and shoved into the junk drawers and garage of my house, sleeping in my shoes, in the garbage and in the black crumbs of my toaster."
Russell's fellow Beaumont native Jesse Dayton, who is trying to entice him into a video for the Ray Wylie Hubbard duet "East Texas Rust," says he's been listening to Well After Awhile in heavy rotation in his car and finds it "a love letter to his family."
"It feels like with the record he gets to give more Kevin Russell to us than he would in the band situation with the Gourds," says Dayton. "The record expands on that real funky redneck shit he brings into the Gourds mix. I can hear the blues, Cajun, country influences from his East Texas upbringing, but he brings them in without aping them.
"It also lets his jones for gospel out big time," Dayton observes. "There's a spiritual theme that runs through the record. I don't want to sound corny, but there's lots of love in it."
There's truckloads of Russell's trademark lyrical whimsy as well. Only a handful of today's writers could invent this lyric from the comic yet subtly political "Poor People's Store":
"You can get more at the poor people's store
Some knockoff jeans with irregular seams
Chairs made of beans and beauty creams
Some Christina Aguilera black mascara
Corn tortillas and some brown aloe vera"
Yeah. Robert Earl Keen on OxyContin.
The beer-drinker comedy "Country Cool" seems like it should appeal to the Texas music crowd and make a perfect addition at so-called Texas music radio stations. Russell is skeptical.
"We always try to share our music with that network of folks, but I'm not sure they really get what I'm doing," he says. "They really need stuff to sound a certain way — basically, the warmed-over Nashville golf-rock sounds they dig. If it doesn't sound like a car commercial, they seem to shy away from it. But we try."
Ironically, just at the time Russell was set to release his Shinyribs album, the Gourds embarked on a summer-long tour that has found them criss-crossing Texas as well as long-hauling to festivals in Oregon and gigs in other longtime Gourds strongholds like Idaho and Montana. The Gourds' busy schedule has "helped and hurt" marketing the Shinyribs record, according to Russell.
"I open for the Gourds a lot when we tour, so I get the Shinyribs name out there to the great unwashed. But there is much I could have done had I not had to go to work. But how many people say that every fucking day of their life, you know?"
Side projects have a way of upsetting some bands, and Russell has worked with fellow Gourds Jimmy Smith and Claude Bernard for 16 years and latecomers Max Johnson and Keith Langford for nearly as long. Is Shinyribs a cause for friction within that band?
"I think I may have ruffled some feathers on some Gourds — what a weird statement," says Russell. "I think more than anything it has just made some people insecure and needlessly worried that I might get another job. But, if anything, it will make it possible to sustain the Gourds longer."
Russell honed the Shinyribs project at a monthly Under the Volcano residency for two years, but the act finally seemed to jell when Langford took over the drums about six months ago.
"Keith has incredible discipline and sympathy for the songs, impeccable taste and the ability to really listen and feel what is happening," says Russell. "He's really overlooked as the great player he is, because his style is so understated. This band with him is world-class; without him we're merely great."
At least at Shinyribs' Under the Volcano gigs, where Russell returns for the first time in six months for a CD release, the crowds seemed to be mostly Gourds followers in the beginning. Eventually, the different ensemble — Russell on guitar, Winfield Cheek on keyboards, Jeff Brown on bass and Langford on drums — took on a more straight-ahead, less jammy sound than the Gourds. After that, Russell began drawing in people who weren't necessarily part of the Gourds cult.
"I think the assumption that we have the same audience is false," he reflects. "There are plenty of Shinyribs fans who are not Gourds fans. In fact, many don't even know about the Gourds."
Russell's wife is a librarian, so the father of two is a regular Mr. Mom when he's not on the road. But he finds ways to balance the domestic life with creating new music.
"Basically I just keep an instrument in every room, and when I am not programming kid's movies or playing swashbuckler space-attack-cowboy-robot dance party, wrestling or cooking chicken nuggets, I sit and let the muse wash my hair in the poetry of life and song."
Russell says the Gourds will probably record again before the year is over. But he sees unlimited potential in Shinyribs, and more albums ahead.
"There will be a second and a third act as far as I can see," he says. "This is a great band and we are burning down houses everywhere we go. Shinyribs will rule the world one day, just you wait and see.
Then he turns even more grandiose.
"Frankly, it's all about the live show, which is still evolving," Russell explains. "The bigger crowds I get, the more money I make, the more musicians and others I can hire.
"Looking ahead, I'm thinking more theatrics and art, like Rauschenberg meets Sandburg meets Leadbelly meets Captain Beefheart just for starters."
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