Onstage, Russell is a sight to behold, grooving to the beat while dressed in a shockingly bright-colored suit and shirt that might have been plucked from your dad's closet (actually he buys them at his favorite clothing store, Soul Train Fashions in New Orleans). Whether he's singing a blistering soul ballad, playing various stringed instruments or leading the crowd in an impromptu danceathon – every single person in the room is often transfixed by his every move while his band cranks out its singular brand of booty-shaking swamp pop.
“Inside, I'm pretty emotional but I don't express it too much in my normal life,” said Russell, giving his pointed, signature gray beard a reflective tug. “Onstage, I'm free to be completely me, and I want to invite the audience into the moment. And doing something crazy onstage creates that moment.”
To get to this moment in his musical journey – he'll turn 50 in May – Russell has in a way reached into his past.
Yet Russell's influential early days were shaped east of Houston in Beaumont, then Humble and later in Shreveport, Louisiana, in high school. Those Gulf Coast roots, brought out to their full potential, take hold in the fourth studio album release from Shinyribs, I Got Your Medicine, which drops February 24.
As far back as he can remember, Russell wanted to be a musician, and had already been writing poetry. At 14 he got his first guitar, not to learn some soulful licks but because he wanted to write songs. His dad would talk to him about legendary Texas singers like The Big Bopper and Port Arthur's Janis Joplin, who was in full Big Brother mode the day Russell was born.
“I loved all music, and didn't really think about what kind of music it was,” said Russell, whose first two album purchases as a kid were reflective of his eclectic tastes: Waylon Jennings' Greatest Hits and Macho Man by the Village People.
I Got Your Medicine was recorded at Houston's SugarHill Studios, where, Russell said, he was thrilled to be in the same building where The Big Bopper recorded “Chantilly Lace” and the band that first grabbed the “swamp pop” moniker in the 1950s, Cookie and His Cupcakes, cut a single or two. And there's one more Houston connection to this whole Shinyribs thing. He gave birth to the project when he was still a member of the Gourds but would slip down from Austin to start performing solo gigs at Under the Volcano in 2008, when the economy had tanked and he needed extra cash to buy a new family car.
Eventually those solo gigs evolved into a four-piece band. But the key step in Shinyribs' evolution came prior to the release of the third album, Okra Candy, in 2015, after a friend who requested that Russell's band play at his wedding insisted that he include a horn section to perform some specific songs. Adding the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns – Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson – was Russell's watershed moment. He was blown away by the band's new sound and the audience reaction at its first couple of gigs.
“I thought this is where it's at. It totally changed my perspective on what I could do, and now [thinking of the horn section] is how I write for the band,” says Russell, who almost immediately got another idea: enhancing the overall sound yet again by adding two female backup vocalists, including Sally Allen — who had already done some work on Okra Candy — and new recruit Alice Spencer, who were given their own nickname, the Shiny Soul Sisters. The jumbo-size Shinyribs played its first gig as an eight-piece ensemble on Valentine's Day in 2015 at Gruene Hall, yet Russell was frustrated that Okra Candy didn't showcase the latest incarnation of the group when it was released a few months later.
“Each [Shinyribs] record I always felt was a bit behind where I was with the live shows. But on this new record, I'm finally going to catch up with where it's at now,” Russell said.
“I Got Your Medicine” delivers a prescription containing all of Russell's Gulf Coast influences colliding in a high-energy fusion that pushes his already emotive vocal stylings into new territory. It blends everything from the throwback novelty sounds of Joe “King” Carrasco to hints of another Russell favorite, Tony Joe White of “Polk Salad Annie” fame, along with plenty of old-school R&B and N'awlins soul.
While the arrangements are complex but never cluttered, the album is a vocalist's showcase. The glue that holds it all together is Russell – whose voice is a powerhouse instrument on its own, a whiskey- and honey-soaked white-soul blend that evokes Jerry Lacroix, another great Texas Gulf Coast singer who performed with Edgar Winter and Rare Earth, among others.
Still, it's the girls who are the secret sauce. They stand out on every one of the 12 songs, either blending on the choruses, answering back and forth in a call-and-response with Russell, or providing backing on the lead vocal line.
One track, “I Don't Give a Shit,” is offered up in the grand tradition of the June Carter and Johnny Cash duet “Jackson,” in which the man and woman have a love-hate relationship going on, a genre that Hayes Carll dipped into on his duet a couple of years go with Bonnie Whitmore for “Another Like You.”
Now that his Shinyribs project, which was born out of financial hardship, is bringing in enough cash from live shows and CD sales to support his family and satisfy his songwriting urgings, Russell says he's not about to rock the boat by pushing the band into unfamiliar territory.
Of course, Russell's mind is always going a million miles an hour, constantly thinking up new songs and fantasizing about quirky musical offshoots. His latest idea for a band, which he figures could tour in a Miata, is The Paper Towels: Russell on ukelele, someone playing a saw and another person whistling.
“I'm an in-the-moment person, and my moment's pretty good right now,” Russell said. “I'm healthy, my family's healthy and the band is successful. I'm playing to my strengths. Time to just ride it and see where it goes.”
Shinyribs and special guests the Peterson Brothers perform Friday, February 17 at the Heights Theater, 339 West 19th Street. Doors open at 7 p.m.