Why Kevin Russell of Shinyribs Turned His Side Project to a Full-Time Job

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Joe Winston
Shinyribs performs tomorrow night at the Kessler.
Sometimes when you make an expensive purchase you take on a second job to pay for it. So when Kevin Russell of the Gourds bought his family a new car in 2007, he looked for a way to make about $500 a month on the side. Instead of throwing newspapers, Russell started Shinyribs, a solo project that played Houston bar Under the Volcano once a month. To help him with the long drive from Austin, he started bringing along another musician, who added percussion or a second guitar.

While recording the 2010 debut LP Well After Awhile, which brought his vocals up in the mix compared to the Gourds recordings, Russell started assembling a four-piece band. But even more importantly, he started thinking that maybe he could survive as a working musician without the talented and successful band he co-founded in 1994 with bassist/singer Jimmy Smith.

The Gourds were going gangbusters at the time, recording the album "Old Mad Joy" at Levon Helms' studio in Woodstock, NY, touring to a growing cult audience across the country and being the focus of the terrific documentary All the Labor. They were in demand to play weddings and private parties, where they usually made $1,000 a man, enough for fiddle/ mandolin player Max Johnston to come down from Dallas, where he moved two years ago to oversee his family's real estate holdings on Lower Greenville.

"I really felt that the past five years of the Gourds, money became a main motivation," Russell says. Since the 1995 recording of Dem's Good Beeble, which Russell calls the best Gourds album, the married band members fathered a combined 12 children and there were bills to pay.

But the creative high point of Russell's month was always Wednesday in Houston in front of 60 to 70 fans. He loved the freedom of running the whole show, of making up a setlist without debate, of singing his heart out without worrying that he might be upstaging the band. He describes his time with the Gourds, founded on a deal that he and Smith would split lead vocal and songwriting duties 50/50, as "a constant tug of war."

This year, Russell let go of the rope and took his brother-in-law, Gourds drummer Keith Langford, with him. The Gourds played their last show before an "indefinite hiatus" in late October in Austin. "I think some of them are still a little pissed off at me," Russell says of his decision to focus on Shinyribs full time.

That final Gourds show, "The Last Stomp," was everything fans had hoped for. The band played in all sorts of configurations, with guest musicians and side bands, and did a bunch of songs they hadn't done in years. The sold-out crowd, many of whom flew in from all over the country on short notice, ringed the stage tightly, like they were watching a cockfight. The Gourds ended the four-hour party with a horn-heavy blowout of "Gin and Juice," followed by an encore of Smith's "Caledonia."

They hugged onstage, but the two factions- Smith and multi-instrumentalist Claude Bernard have a new band the Hard Pans- haven't really talked much since. "It was a wonderful show because it was that show, our last one," says Russell. "Seeing all those familiar faces in the crowd, every one had a story or a memory. It was like looking at my life the past 20 years."

In concert, Shinyribs never plays Gourds songs, not because Russell wants to keep that band in the past, but because, with the great followup LP Gulf Coast Museum, a more organic-sounding "band" record than the solo debut, there's enough Shinyribs material to fill an hour and a half. They don't even have to play "Gin and Juice," the bluegrass take on Snoop Dogg that became the Gourds' "Free Bird." Instead, Shinyribs throws crowd-pleasing curves by covering "Waterfalls" by TLC and Hendrix's "The Wind Cried Mary" with a lone ukulele.

Russell, Langford, bassist Jeff Brown and keyboardist Winfield Cheek have gone back into the studio with producer George Reiff (who was a member of Dallas band Big Loud Dog when Russell, then fronting Picket Line Coyotes, met him in 1989) to record the third album. The working title "Okra Candy" perfectly describes the band's sound of sweet and melodic Southern roots music.

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Played Under the Volcano once a month, not once a week.

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