World premieres of albums or singles are, for the most part, the territory of The Wall Street Journal or USA Today, publications with national and international reach or else trade publications like American Songwriter, Paste, Pitchfork, or Rolling Stone. Well, guess which publication is doing a world premiere today of the new Shinyribs track? Before you can listen to "Who's Got My Natural Comb?" from the soon-to-be-released, eagerly anticipated Austin-centric tribute album Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, the Houston Press has it for you right here.
If you saw my recent cover story on Kevin Russell’s ever-more-popular band in the July edition of Texas Music, you know Russell worked the kinks out of what was originally a side project at Rice Village bar Under the Volcano here in Houston. The onetime Gourds co-captain's minimalist once-a-month Shinyribs residency eventually evolved into a six-piece country-funk gospel-soul boogie machine that is currently the hottest musical commodity in the state; so hot, in fact, that Russell’s outfit is currently on a tour taking them through Montana, Idaho and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. The Press was the first to inform the public about Shinyribs back in 2007, and continues to shadow The Bearded One's career.
Russell recently served as co-producer of the Hawkins tribute album that features a plethora of Texas artists ranging from James McMurtry, Jon Dee Graham, and Ramsay Midwood to straight country singers like Bill and Kasey Chambers and Sunny Sweeney. The album is filled with reverent readings of Hawkins’s heart-wrenching lyrics and hard-life observations: Randy Weeks drops a poignant interpretation of “I Got What I Wanted” while old salt Gurf Morlix puts a huge dose of morose into alcoholic’s lament “I Gave Up All I Had.” Mary Gauthier's rendering of "Sorry You're Sick" is brilliantly executed.
Co-produced by music publicist Jenni Finlay and writer Brian T. Atkinson, the album is the first to revisit Hawkins’s work since his passing in 1995, and is titled after Hawkins’s own album, Cold and Bitter Tears. Hawkins was an eccentric street singer whose main base of operations was Venice, Calif., where he busked on the beach walk for years. He was “discovered” and recorded numerous times and even moved to England for a while to further his career, but his erratic substance-fueled lifestyle always caused any real success and recognition to elude him, although alternative radio picked up on songs like “There Stands the Glass” and “This Is Happy Hour” late in his career.
If the album has any issues, it’s that there isn’t much rocking oomph, which is understandable given the solemnity that accompanied much of Hawkins’s work. But Russell and his mates — Winfield Cheek (keys), Keith Langford (drums), Jeff Brown (bass), Mark Wilson (sax) and Tiger Anaya (trumpet) — fix that problem with a blow-the-doors-off version of what is actually one of Hawkins’s goofiest lyrics, “Who Got My Natural Comb?” The result is the hardest-rocking track the band has yet recorded and will make a fine addition to the live set list. Russell notes the band is working the song into their set on the current tour, “and by the time we get back home I expect it to be a regular song in our show.” There have been prison riots that weren’t this much of an ass-stomping. Russell screams and shouts like James Brown finding Jesus as his band takes out its aggression on the tape machine.
The song actually wasn’t Russell’s first choice for the project, he explains.
“I’m very much a lyrics guy and I was considering several of the more serious songs, but Jenni and Brian kept saying we should cover this tune and no one else seemed to fit it like we did,” the singer explains via phone from Boise. “But we came up with a spirited arrangement, which I think is the key to the success with covering a song like that. We all really get to show out on this one.”
Russell recalls working in a South Austin store called BookPeople when he got some Hawkins promo discs from Rounder Records.
“Rounder was always an interesting label, so I took Watch Your Step and Happy Hour home. I never heard of the guy and honestly I though the Happy Hour cover looked pretty cheesey. But I put on Watch Your Step and, man, from the first song I was like, ‘Who is this guy and how come I‘ve never heard of him?’ I’ve been playing it for everyone for twenty years now.”
Hawkins’s plaintive, soulful voice grabbed Russell immediately.
“To me it was obvious that his voice put Otis Redding and Sam Cooke — two of my favorite singers, arguably two of everybody’s favorite singers — together," he says. "Then it was his songwriting style. I didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t blues or soul, but it was soulful. He never played minor chords, always major chords. That’s why I like it. Was it blues? Country? Soul? It’s all of those. You can tell he’d been influenced by all the great forms of Twentieth Century American music. That’s where I live musically and creatively.”