Kevin Russel has been astounding audiences for decades. First with The Gourds and now with his Shinyribs project and alter ego. Shinyribs has taken off as the live act to see in Texas on the foundation of unstoppable grooves and infectious good times. But, don’t let that discount Russell’s songwriting ability. Russell can spin a yarn, squash it together with a melody and tell a story better than most. He’s long been a favorite of ours and has headlined Greenfest once. In this edition of 20 Questions find out how and why Russell chooses those crafty covers, where he learned his dance moves, about the time he met a ghost in Lubbock, and if Louisiana state troopers cut him a break.
New Years Eve at Gruene Hall is going to be off da hook! And I have just booked time at Sugar Hill Recording Studios in Houston. I am going to make a good, old fashioned, post-modern swamp pop record with Jimbo Mathus producing. The legendary story of the studio is part of the attraction. https://en.m.
2. You’re obviously well-known for your eclectic choice in cover songs, be it TLC, T Pain, Blackstreet, Megan Trainor and of course the infamous Snoop Dogg cover from The Gourds days. Not to mention the acoustic covers at the end of your first couple records (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Change Is Gonna Come”). To borrow a cliché, you completely inhabit these songs and make them your own. Could you talk about the process that leads you to choosing them? And do you arrange them solo or involve the band?
Well, usually I choose them for their ease of working in a band arrangement. Then their popularity or recognizability is important. I look for absurdity and groove. A good song with a subject matter that sort of clashes with my image always works. Others think they only have to choose an old rap or R&B song. But, the context is also important to really blow minds. This requires a clear and honest understanding of who you are and how people see you. Much of what is happening when I do a song like that is a cross-cultural stereotype being destroyed for fun. There has to be some element of taboo to it. Some unwritten rule must be broken for it to work. I tend to inhabit that space when I perform it as well. I am consciously challenging my normal self to subvert my usual choice. I am splitting my own personal atom when I do that.
3. Name association:
-Cody Canada-Salt N Smoke
-Hayes Carll-Bolivar Peninsula
-Willie Nelson-Jazz Pope
-Evan Felker-Feathers all over the floor
-Ray Wylie Hubbard-Yoda
-Charlie Robison-Grim Blues
-Robert Earl Keen-Chicken Burl
-Todd Snider-Spine Tears
4. Not that you were even pinned down per se, but your well-documented transition from The Gourds to the Shinyribs project seems to have ignited some sort of musical freedom. Is this the happiest you’ve ever been making music?
With each new chapter I have been growing and learning. One might say that it has all been leading up to this. I am better and freer than I have ever been. I am exploding with inspiration and joy.
5. Your music is obviously very diversely influenced. There are elements of rock, country, folk, soul, and even Broadway (“Walt Disney”). When you sit down to write or create do you find that the style or melody comes first? Or do you grab a phrase that sits with you and build the music to suit the words?
These days I often get the feel first or style, as you say. The melody, chord progression, music all gets done before the words. Although certain key phrases do dictate how the music happens. All in all it is a rather unpredictable adventure following an idea down it’s desired path. Sometimes I jerk it back and take it where I think it should go. Maybe it’s like riding a dragon that becomes a horse then a boat and then a friend at the end.
6. As someone that has resided in Austin for a long time, what do you make of the city’s growth and how it’s changed so much since you first hit town?
Sometimes it amazes me the energy, wealth and unbridled momentum Austin has. Sometimes I am sad about the years gone by. I understand it though. Part of me feels proud to be a part of this dynamic emerging new kind of city. And part of me gets sentimental for the golden time. Those nights in South Austin where there was no one but us wondering the streets singing and laughing at the grackles shitting while they slept. It is funny that people come here to try and experience that legendary slacker life style. But, they’ll never know what that was. Only some of us were able to pull that off for a few years there before the boom. And it was glorious. But, maybe I am just romanticizing my 20’s. Typical.
7. Your dance moves onstage are in a league with Jackie Wilson and James Brown relative to your ethnicity and size. Where does that come from? Is it something you’ve rehearsed? Or is it just the natural flow of the music through your body?
I used to dance all the time as a boy. I imitated Soul Train, American Bandstand and also Rerun on What’s Happening. Me and my sister used to do dance routines to records then perform them for our parents. I have always liked dancing. But, somewhere in my teens I got too self-conscious and quit. Then I became an angry young man that had the energy but not the moves. It wasn’t until a Gourds song, “Burn The Honeysuckle” that I rediscovered that part of myself. Perhaps it was the power of Keith Langford’s groove, I don’t know. But, once that genie was let out of the bottle there ain’t no going back. Dance has the power to energize people. And that is how I use it. I want to show also that one should have no fear. Be who you are. Turn off that voice inside that tells you not to be who want to be. That is the ultimate freedom we all deserve. The permission from within ourselves to let us out of the box.
8. Stories behind the following songs:
-“Who Built the Moon”
Heard a guy on the Art Bell radio show who wrote a book by the same title. It started with a title. A psychedelic lunar creation story.
-“East TX Rust”
Jerry Reed meets Stevie Wonder. It’s all about that riff, really. The rest is just shit talk.
I wrote this as a theme for the Texas Tribune Podcast at the behest of Reeve Hamilton. https://soundcloud.
-“Song of Lime Juice and Despair”
The menu for a Devil’s Brunch mixed with cowboy blues and a little brag talk thrown in. Crisco=Country Disco, Salvador Dali Parton.
This is about being drunk, spinning and trying to stop.
-“Baby, What’s Wrong?”
This chick is messed up. Pitiful.
-“Sweeter Than the Scars”
A sentimental exploration of a well once the water is gone. I hear it as a celtic Waylon song played by Atlanta Rhythm Section.
-“Poor People’s Store”
Written as a jingle for a chain of stores I opened in my mind. If music didn’t work out I was going to open the poor people’s store.
-“The Sacred and Profane”
This is about determination, not giving up. In order for one to continue on under less than ideal circumstances they will have to find sustenance from both the sacred or spiritual self and the profane or animal self.
9. Do you always listen to Cee-Lo when driving to Lake Charles? And related to that, do the Louisiana state troopers pull you over as soon as you cross the border for outing them as having nasty dispositions?
(laughs) I don’t think I have ever actually done that. We were helped by the Louisiana state police once when we got iced into New Orleans. A Texas Game Warden friend consulted a trooper he knew to get us the best information on road conditions between NOLA and Lafayette. Based on his advice we stayed put in NOLA instead of trying to get down I-10. The right decision as the interstate was closed later that morning. I, of course, have nothing but respect for the great men and women of the Louisiana State Police.
10. I’ve seen you play in the Shinyribs conglomeration at least a dozen times. Inevitably, there are some folks in the crowd that have never seen you guys. At first there is always a bit of hesitation and uncertainty on their part. But, you normally win them over by the third of fourth song (if not earlier). As an artist that feeds off the crowd to such a high degree, is that that something that motivates you while onstage? Or do you even notice?
I do notice. But, my performance is going to be the same regardless of their reaction. If there are five or five thousand people I am going to be the same. The show is always at a high level of energy. We move quickly from song to song. I don’t like to ever hear the applause stop. I always want the next song to start before that. Before a show I observe the crowd and get a feel for how the show should go. I remember once in Abilene Winfield Cheek told me maybe I shouldn’t do all those dances. He was concerned there was a lot of big old Cowboys out there. I assured him they would love it. And they did.
11. Do you really enjoy drinking your beer “country cool” as opposed to ice cold?
Actually no. That is Keith Langford who coined the term. I am more of a gin and soda guy.
12. Favorite touring memories of the following towns/clubs:
The Valentines Day show at Gruene Hall was a dream come true. I had the whole band, with The Shiny Soul Singers and Danny Levin in the line up. We did a great set of some of my favorite love songs like, Love TKO by Teddy Pendergrass, Telephone Line by ELO, When I Need You By Leo Sayer, etc. And we sold out the place.
Whataburger Jesus sat with me and told fishing stories while he ate his apple pie with his fingers.
The two years of monthly Wednesday shows at Under The Volcano where I found Shinyribs.
Meeting an old woman at an abandoned house who told me the whole story of the family that lived there. Then finding out later that she was a ghost who others have talked to in the past.
Roger And Marianne Staubach dancing to our show at Sons Of Hermann Hall was pretty great.
That time at The Golden Light when the ceiling didn’t leak. And the burgers, yes, those burgers.
That time we got iced in to NOLA and used social media to find a place to stay. Those people are like family now.
White Water is the best. Matt White is the man.
13. You’ve been adopted by the Texas/Red Dirt scene despite making music that is not typically in that mold. Is that something you embrace?
Absolutely. That scene has been so kind and supportive. Of course I am not like the others. But, they are nice to their weirdo cousin. I appreciate it.
14. Has the Donut Taco Palace given you an endorsement yet? Or at the very least allowed you and your bambinos to eat there free for life?
I cannot confirm or deny reports of any dealings between me and The Donut Taco Palace.
15. I have referred to “Sweet Potato” as the Texas “Purple Rain”. How do you feel about that?
I like it. I am gonna use that.
16. Your vocals and dancing sometimes detract from your guitar playing which is very underrated. Is your playing something you work on since the other stuff seems to come so naturally?
I have gotten better. I would never consider myself that good. But, I have fun. I just let it fly. More and more I am finding a style my own I think.
17. Tell us a bit about the band. They are such a diverse crew and seemingly grow stronger as a unit with each gig.
Drummer Keith Langford from San Antone is my brother in law by way of his sister, my wife, Robin. He was a Gourd with me for fifteen years of miles of music. And I cannot imagine playing with anyone but him. We have developed a unique report over these years. But, especially with Shinyribs. He makes the whole thing go. I just have to dance.
Holding it down with him is bassist, Jeff Brown, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area whom I met when I produced a recording for his band No Show Ponies. He is a great guitarist/songwriter on his own as well. His sense of song and feel of arrangement is crucial to our musicality. He is a great fan and scholar of music. As well, probably one of the best read people I know.
On Keys is Juilliard Lee Lewis, The Forrest Gump of Rock N Roll, Winfield Cheek III. He’s classically trained Kentucky fried keyboard wizard who waited tables at Studio 54 and played on The Grand Ol Opry with Roy Acuff. He was also at Conway Twitty’s funeral. And yes, he brought KFC to the reception like the good southern boy he is.
That brings us to the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns…
On saxophones and flute is the Great San Angelo Texas Lion Mark Wilson. The Train Wreck half of the Tijuana Train Wreck. Mark is a 30+ year veteran of Austin music, world music and reggae. His impeccable sensibility and attention to detail are what put the class in the Shinyribs brass.
On trumpet, Tiger Anaya puts the wanna in Tijuana. His tone is legendary, his carpe diem attitude keeps us all moving forward. His professionalism puts him in a higher calibre. His professionalism seems to rub off on everyone.
Danny Levin, who occasionally joins us on fiddle, is a world class musician who many remember from his days in the early Asleep At The Wheel. His ability to elevate a song into a rare stratosphere is fascinating. One must witness it to understand the magic that can come from skills in the hands of a true master.
Alice Spencer and Sally Allen round out the line up as The Shiny Soul Singers. They are newest and most exciting additions to our sound and show. They bring big, beautiful harmonies to our sound. And they are beginning to incorporate their own dances into the show.
18. Rapid fire:
-Taco or burrito?
-Favorite restaurant in Austin?
Lucy’s Fried Chicken
-Favorite stretch of highway?
105 between Brenham and Navasota
-Favorite new artist?
Eagle Eye Williamson
19. What’s your favorite George Strait song, and why?
“Marina Del Rey” is to me a timeless musical memory that takes me back to my first love, talking for hours, late at night on the phone. Dreaming of when we could be together again. Basically it represents a naive, innocent time of life when love was new, pure and mysterious.
20. If asked to define your music, how would you do so?
Country Funk Space Opera Sex Grooves