How Shinyribs Became Texas's Hottest Band

Winfield Cheek (l) funking it up behind Kevin Russell (r).
Winfield Cheek (l) funking it up behind Kevin Russell (r).
Photo by Jason Wolter

Winfield Cheek is just happy to be here. Now into his eighth year as funky keyboardist with Shinyribs, one of the fastest-moving bands in the Texas scene right now, Cheek seems content with his place in the band and the universe.

"Man, it took awhile but this band has really taken off," says Cheek from his home in Austin as he rests up after a long tour to Florida. "There've been times when I had my doubts if the project would even stay together, but it sure seems like we've cleared some major hurdles the past 18 months or so."

While the band has always had a strong base in Houston, where Kevin Russell put together what was at first just a side project outside his main band, the Gourds, Cheek notes that suddenly Austin seemed to catch on when the band did a Tuesday-night residency at Ray Benson's club The Rattle Inn.

"The first night we played, there couldn't have been 50 people there," Cheek recalls. "By the time we finished those gigs, there was a line around the block waiting to get in. It just exploded in Austin for us suddenly. Not long after that, we were drawing some pretty huge crowds at bigger venues like Threadgill's."

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"And that was about the time we switched up some management and we got invited to the annual Steamboat ski week," he continues. "I think a lot of people who had heard of us but never seen us finally did see us at Steamboat, and that just gave us an added push. That's a great event and it's definitely been good to us."

Still, there were times when Cheek wasn't sure Shinyribs would ever gel into anything resembling full-time work.

"That documentary about the Gourds came out, and right in that same time frame, their album they made in Woodstock at Levon Helm's studio came out, and I honestly figured that if the movie or the album or both hit, Kevin would be too busy with the Gourds to devote much time to the Shinyribs thing. But for whatever reason, that album, which I thought was great, just didn't do much and the movie didn't really either."

"Another thing that gave us a boost in Houston was Michael Berry and the Redneck Country Club," Cheek observes. "That's a first-class club, great sound, it's run well, and the crowds there have been large and very accepting."

"We all love Houston," he says. "The shows at Under the Volcano are always so crazy. I was talking with Jeff [Brown], our bass player, the other day and we both agreed that we love playing those Volcano gigs because that audience accepts anything we do. That's a great feeling to have as an artist, knowing you can mix it up and create without worrying someone will say, 'Oh, that doesn't sound like the record.' We love the Volcano.

"But we also like Houston because we've got a handful of good venues to play," continues Cheek. "The show we did at Mucky Duck was so cool, and we've had a couple of gigs at Cottonwood in the Heights and that draws some new blood into our crowd, I think. And of course there's also the Redneck Country Club. So, yeah, Houston is a real good town for us."

Cheek is eagerly awaiting the release of the band's third album, Okra Candy, set to drop April 14.

"I really like the creative thing that happened with this record," says Cheek. "There's just a lot of crazy, creative stuff. It reminds me more of the first Shinyribs album [Well After Awhile] than the last one [Gulf Coast Museum]. And it's got a lot of muscle to it.

"Plus, this one doesn't have any country feel to it, mostly because of us adding the horn section," Cheek explains. "This album is very swampy, it has that Gulf Coast feel about it for sure, which is what Kevin is all about since he's from Beaumont originally."

"I have to admit that I thought we didn't need the horns," Cheek laughs, "but as usual, Kevin was right. He saw it and I couldn't. They just add an element that gives us a spark. Now I can't imagine doing gigs without them."

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Cheek has learned that Russell is often right in his judgments.

"I think since the Gourds went on hiatus and Kevin has put all his energy into this project, he's become a better businessman and manager," Cheek says. And make no mistake about it, it is his band. He made that clear from the beginning when he told me that he knew I could play keys, play guitar, probably front my own band, do my own singing. He made it very clear that it's his show, that he and he alone decides.

"We argue about mixes and things like that, but at the end of the day, the buck starts and stops with Kevin," he continues. "The way this thing is growing, I can live with that. I just want that record to come out and for us to start playing it live. Hopefully it will blow people's minds the way it does mine."

Cheek, who once shared a house in North Hollywood with Houston songwriter Mike Stinson and producer Charlie McGovern, says life couldn't be much better than it is right now.

"I just trudge along and do my job," he laughs. "My life is pretty simple. I just try to do my job right and contribute to the overall team effort, and so far it seems to be working."

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