Kevin Russell’s post-Gourds project, Shinyribs, has had one of the most successful 2015s of any band, ballooning its audience way beyond its original confines of hippies, slackers and music connoisseurs. This year Shinyribs finally broke through with the Ballcap Nation/Texas music crowd that normally prefers songs about pickup trucks or floating the river drunk.
But beginning with his breakthrough performance last winter at Steamboat, the annual Texas Country/Red Dirt festival in Colorado ski country, Russell’s outfit has found more and more acceptance, even at joints like the Redneck Country Club. At least Russell and his wily Austin co-conspirators have some fun with the situation while rushing those ever-larger gig guarantees to the nearest bank.
Saturday, Russell rolls in for what will be his first-ever Shinyribs show at the Continental Club, a Gourds stronghold for years. He’ll also be holed up here the first week of January working on his fourth album, the successor to this year’s Okra Candy, which will make numerous year-end best lists. Russell lived in Houston when he was in junior high and holds the Bayou City in high regard. The decision to record an album at Houston's SugarHill Studios was a logical step, offers the brainy Austinite.
“My interest in the history of Texas music always leads to Houston and primarily SugarHill,” Russell explains. “I am kind of a cosmic coonass in the sense that I believe inanimate objects, particularly instruments, studios, venues and the cities they are in can absorb and secrete the precious spiritual fluids of yesteryear. To some extent I am going on a ghost hunt there. I want to try and conjure some of the old H-Town ju-ju.
“Houston means more to Texas than most Texans know or want to admit,” he continues. “It was 'Austin' before Austin, and by that I mean it was the progressive, cosmopolitan cultural center of all things in the Lone Star state for most, if not all, of the 20th century. For that lofty position it has suffered the slings and arrows of people's discontent, failures and blame, much as Austin has recently. To me it is still 'the city' of Texas and I consider it one of my hometowns. It is a special place.”
Russell notes the next album will be the first to have something of a game plan, although he’s still after spontaneity in the studio.
“Having a solid idea about the stylistic intentions on the next record puts me way ahead of where I was at the outset of the last three,” he says. “I’ve just kind of let things fall where they may when making records because I’m a go-with-the-flow guy. But, the band and the shows over the last year have been revelatory. We’re emerging as something really special, and now is the time to capture that lightning.
Whereas Russell says the Gourds were driven by '70s rock and Appalachian country, and Shinyribs' aesthetic signposts are now swamp pop and New Orleans R&B, he promises the group's new effort “won’t be anachronistic or faithful recreations.”
“The main goal is to record us as live as possible,” he promises. “Like in our shows and even in rehearsals, the thrill of this collective imagination is a celebration that I want to share.”
Russell’s previous albums were produced by Austin bassist George Reiff, but this time he’s recruited roots-music savant Jimbo Mathus, one-time leader of Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“Jimbo’s a musical compadre of mine going back a few years when a friend, Norwood Creech, turned me onto his Confederate Buddha record,” explains Russell. “When I heard that I hunted him down, called him on the phone, and told him straight-up,‘You stole my record collection and I want it back.’ We sometimes do shows with him, and one show in Beaumont at Courville's was when he saw us with the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns for the first time.
“He grabbed me after the show and told me he wanted to do a record,” he continues. “Later the thought hit me about doing it at SugarHill, and Jimbo knew all about what that place means. We agreed that would be the perfect situation.”
Russell’s knowledge of the history at the southeast Houston studio also figured heavily in the decision.
“I’m hoping the walls can and will talk,” he says. “Those ghosts in there will be dancing I think when we really get it going. Also, Steve Christensen, who engineers there, mixed the first Shinyribs record, so we’ve got history.”
One difficulty Russell has recognized about the recording of his previous albums was that some of the creations were difficult to translate to the live show.
“It became apparent some are just not stylistically appropriate, in my mind anyway, for the shows,” he says. “It made me realize I’m in a band with an identity and a sound and a style, and I have to write and record with this in mind now. That means sacrificing some of my other musical sides, but I can’t possibly cover the creative territory of my musical life in one show, one recording, or one lifetime perhaps. A bit more focus is good for my randomness, my Ritalin and Blues, if you will.
“This time most of the songs are already written but it’s possible something new might pop out,” Russell explains, speaking of new songs he's been writing and arranging like “(I'm In a) Ambulance” and “Don't Leave It a Lie.”
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This Saturday, Russell says to listen for some staples from Shinyribs' Under the Volcano days, like "Don't Trouble Trouble" and "Tubgut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul," as well as band-beloved covers like "Kidnapper" and "Nothing Takes the Place of You.”
His new group's runaway success has presented Russell with new opportunities to produce other projects, such as a recent tribute album to street singer Ted Hawkins. He's has had to turn down other offers due to Shinyribs' busy schedule.
“If I had more time I would pursue producing more,” he says. “Mostly I love arranging songs, which might be my strong suit as a producer. The gratification of seeing a song through from writing to arranging and finally recording is equal to any of the proverbial pleasures of this mysterious life. And it is truly a blessing for one's work to be one's art.”
Shinyribs and special guest Nick Gaitan perform Saturday, December 19 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 9 p.m.