"Literate roots party music" is how Kevin "Shinyribs" Russell describes the Gourds: "We're Bill Burroughs meets Jerry Lee Lewis at the funeral of Robert Johnson on the Millennium Falcon piloted by Joe Strummer and Neil Young."
The Gourds have been around since the summer of 1994 when members of Picket Line Coyotes and the Grackles came together. The band may not travel in a psychedelic bus followed by a legion of tie-dyed, acid-dropping fans, but the Austin outfit comes as close as any band to the Grateful Dead's traveling-circus tradition. Much like Fred Eaglesmith's FredHeads, a growing legion of fanatics travel far and wide following the band.
For Russell, a recent Gourds show at Austin's Armadillo Christmas Bazaar provides an example of the band's fanbase's jumbled diversity.
Friday, January 9, at the Continental Club, 3700Main, 713-528-9899 or www.continentalclub.com/houston.
"I saw two fans sitting near each other," he recalls. "One was a wrinkled Wiccan hippie woman who lives in the trees outside of Bastrop; the other was a game warden with Texas Parks & Wildlife."
"We've had Matthew McConaughey drunk as a skunk in the front row," he adds, "and Clayton Williams dancing with Modesta to 'Gin and Juice.' We're on George [W.] Bush's iPod and we're favorites of old-school Microsoft employees in Seattle. People bring young children to shows who know all the words, and they bring their grandparents to dance with us. We're wholesome and subversive, populist pagans without a cause."
The Gourds' current lineup solidified in 1999 when former Uncle Tupelo/Wilco sideman Max Johnston was added. The band's ninth album, Haymaker! (Yep Roc), dropped Tuesday. Discussing the new record, Beaumont native and former Houstonian Russell is uncharacteristically unpretentious for someone who is supposed to be touting art.
"We had no ideas about direction, just the knowledge that we needed to make a record and get it out," says Russell, who, along with bassist Jimmy Smith, writes the bulk of the Gourds' material.
Haymaker!, he says, is "another brilliant, budget-minded record from this band that knows how to make good low-budget records.
"That's all we've ever done. If we were ever given a real budget to work with, we might be able to realize our greatest potential," surmises Russell. "Or we might just implode."
He describes the album as having a "raw, live feel to it that we haven't captured before. And the drums sound great, which is so important but so difficult to achieve."
Drummer Keith Langford agrees: "We were loose and that always helps. We played a friend's wedding, took that money and did some basic tracks the weekend after. There was zero pressure because it wasn't anyone else's money or time."
The Gourds have always been pigeonholed as part of the Americana scene. Fred Eaglesmith recently told the Houston Press he thought the Americana movement was dying, but Russell and Langford take different tacks.
"It is slowing up," offers Langford. "In the late '90s and 2000s, it was cool to have a banjo in your band. Now all of a sudden that feels uncool again. But it'll come back around, as all those things do."
"We never liked that scene," Russell says. "From the moment I saw the first issue of No Depression, I was suspect of that shit. For all of the 'alternative' lip service, it's usually just low-budget versions of the same crap the majors are churning out. Few in the scene are really doing anything with much energy or inspiration. I generally hate it."
After 15 years of touring, how do the members' families cope with the separations and the general lack of security in the music business?
"We go out for a couple weeks, come back for a couple weeks and kiss up to our families," says Langford. "It's a great method and I recommend it in any field. A burst of work followed by a burst of honey-do."
"We just keep going," says Russell. "We all have mortgages and groceries to buy, so we have to keep on playing shows."
Russell sees the balancing act between home life and the band as the biggest challenge to the Gourds continuing.
"As we grow our families, we're pulled harder and further from the creative, collaborative moments that create and fuel great bands," he says. "I think some of the same chemicals used in parenting are needed in the care and feeding of a band, and those chemicals are not limitless, either."
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"I ask myself often why the hell we keep going, but then we play or, like last night, we rehearsed new cover tunes for our New Year's show. We worked up 'Rock the Casbah' by the Clash, among others, and we stayed in Jimmy's shed for hours just playing and drinking the Irish Protestant cough medicine till the wee hours, knowing full well we would all be awakened by the munchkins and their mothers in the morning.
"I love playing with these men," continues Russell. "It is fucking fun. Obviously, we have had a longer run than most bands. We've seen 'em come and go. Some, like Drive-By Truckers, have passed us on the road. Most have crashed and burned; Slobberbone and Hazeldine, remember them? And some, like Old 97's, left for the bright lights then came back home."
Few bands ever make it beyond a couple of albums. Russell attributes the Gourds' longevity to poetic songs that appeal to a fan base that he proudly describes as "hyper-literate, passionate humanists swimming in a pool of lager and lust, covered in a lonesome crust. They are city mice and country mice who like their smoke and spice and their beer on ice, hedonistic foodies, esoteric partiers, paranoid pilgrims, hubristic Trotskyite gnostics, Cartesian alcoholic minimalists, auto-erotic constitutionalists and other natural nonconformists of all shapes and sizes."
Sounds an awful lot like the people who followed the Grateful Dead.