MUSIC / Jan Reid : The ‘Old Mad Joy’ of the Gourds

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Old Mad Joy:
No Last Waltz for the Gourds

‘Most bands grow out of rock and roll when they get to be our age,’ Russell told me with a laugh. ‘We’ve done everything kind of backward.’

By Jan Reid | The Rag Blog | January 14, 2011

In the 40-odd years since Austin became more than a backwater of American music, none of its talents have been more rousing and enduring than the band called the Gourds.

The Gourds came out this fall with a highly praised and historically resonant Vanguard release, Old Mad Joy. They have four fine singers and songwriters and an astonishing facility with an array of instruments that include acoustic and bass and electric guitar, mandolin, accordion, violin, piano and organ, and drums. They blend strains and echoes of gospel, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, Cajun, even barbershop harmony — sometimes all of that blended in one song.

I first encountered them about 10 years ago, and I thought, good lord, it was like seeing and hearing The Band. That first exposure led me to an album called Shinebox, which was recorded in the Netherlands, and that started with a pitch- and humor-perfect country-western take on Snoop Doggy Dogg’s hip-hop classic, “Gin and Juice.” The band’s leader — to the extent they have one — is a large good-natured man named Kevin Russell. The cover was an Internet sensation, and reached the notice of Mr. Dogg, as the late Molly Ivins tagged him. An associate on his radio program reached Russell and asked the Gourds to roll on over and rap.

Russell hesitated and said they would have to make some travel arrangements. “The guy said, ‘You’re where?’ Like everybody in the world lives in Los Angeles. I guess if you live out there it seems like they do.” Shinebox also contained eclectic covers of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Girls,” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Omaha.” But now the Gourds seldom play any covers, because their own writing is so prolific and so good.

Jimmy Smith, the Gourds’ bass player and another star singer, has curly black hair and sideburns that are going a little gray now. In style and voice Smith reminded me of the late singer and piano player Richard Manuel, of The Band. David Langford, a rancher and nature photographer whose son Keith is the Gourds’ drummer, told me that I had it wrong. “Listen to him again,” he said. “He is Rick Danko” — the late singer and bass player of The Band, which in the sixties and seventies, especially with the parting Martin Scorcese movie The Last Waltz, far transcended its origins as Bob Dylan’s backup group.

Smith nodded politely as I mentioned the similarities and perceived influences. “We’d never heard of them until people like you started telling us that we sound like them,” he said with a smile, perhaps putting me on. It was a gentle way of saying I was old enough to be his father.

Russell asked me one time, “You want to know why we became an acoustic band?” He laughed and said, “We didn’t want to haul around amps.

“Why the Gourds?” I asked about the name.

“When we came to Austin we were the Picket Line Coyotes,” he replied. “There was some history associated with that, and we just decided it was time to change. Jimmy wanted us to be the Sun-Dried Diegos. I guess he wanted us to play happy hours at Central Market.

He had this little house we called the Steamy Bowl. A shack, really, but he lived there 10 years. Off the road, 200 bucks a month, nobody we could bother much. It was the classic band house. We played, we crashed, we slept on the floor. And he had this little sculpture in the front yard. Broken guitar, various junk. Between its legs was a butternut squash.” Russell shrugged.

“That seemed to be us. The Gourds.”

Russell’s dad worked for an oil company. They lived first in Beaumont, where an uncle used to play Willis Alan Ramsey’s legendary only record and long for the old days at Armadillo World Headquarters, and then his dad’s work moved them to suburban Houston, and then Shreveport.

“I was into Southern rock,” Russell said. “Anything Southern. Lynnyrd Skynnyrd was my favorite.” Then punk bands from Minneapolis and the West Coast caught his ear, and punk was somewhat the tenor of the Picket Line Coyotes. “We sort of got run out of Shreveport,” Russell said. “We were just playing music, and drawing crowds, but fraternity guys were getting drunk and tearing up joints. The owners blamed us. We were blackballed.”

The evolving band moved to Dallas, and then Austin. Smith was from the Dallas suburb Plano. Max Johnston, the third lead singer, had come down from Kentucky and played banjo and acoustic guitar and the violin, which he plays like a violin, not a fiddle. He has a fine song on the new album called TK.

Red-bearded Claude Bernard joined the band blowing on a hooter and bought his first accordion for 35 bucks at a flea market; he’s also the keyboard player. The original drummer was the immigrant Welshman Charlie Llewellin, now Texas Monthly’s new media director and the band’s favorite photographer. Keith Langford, the drummer they settled on, is Russell’s brother-in-law. He’d been playing heavy metal in San Antonio.

Russell had a day job in Austin’s popular independent Book People. He thought an appearance by the band might lighten up employees who wanted to air their grievances at work. The Gourds were initially an in-crowd discovery of people who frequented the bookstore. “Lots of women dancing together,” said Bernard. “Wild dancers. They whipped up the crowd in a way we couldn’t possibly manage.”

They played for crowds of 20 at the Chicago House, then moved up to the Hole in the Wall, across the street from the University of Texas campus and KLRU studios but still far removed from Austin City Limits. “Alt-country” was a rubric of the nineties that began as a fanzine of Uncle Tupelo. The Gourds were uncomfortable about being branded alternative anything and lumped into a yuppie stampede to bib overalls and old swimming holes, but they were Austin’s foremost beneficiary of alt-country.

The Gourds in Austin, Texas, February 12, 2007. Photo by Steve Hopson / Wikimedia Commons.

The North Carolina independent Sugar Hill picked up the Gourds, but they paid their bills from their income on the road. The South by Southwest festival swirled around the Gourds in Austin, but Russell told me that if I’d come to Jovita’s I wouldn’t encounter anybody with plastic cards hanging around their necks. Smoke billowed back then, beers were handed back from a long line at the bar, and now and then a waitress would maneuver through the mass of bodies, holding a tray of enchiladas aloft.

The players were handing back and forth instruments that seemed to never need tuning, though the venue had problems; a clogged air conditioning duct poured a stream of water at their feet. “I think it’s gone beyond towels,” said Russell, blinking and thrown off stride. Smith walked over, spread his arms, and raised his face to the shower. The album they were pushing then was Cow Fish Fowl or Pig.

The title of the record was drawn from Smith’s fanciful song about a vendor calling on William S. Burroughs, Henry Ford, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Muhammad Ali. Performing it, Langford was bearing down on his harmonica, Bernard hugging and swaying with his accordion, a chorus of voices singing genial nonsense, bop bop, bah dooh dah, bop bop. “My name is Jorge and I twist and I juke/ I roll into town on a wagon of fruit.”

The Gourds crowd presented a stunning array of young women. A blond whose face would fill up a movie screen looked at her boyfriend, raised her elbow with a grin of delight, and I watched them go swirling and stomping their heels in the ageless bacchanal.

The Gourds have come a long way since then. The banjo and harmonica have mostly receded from the mix, and they’re plugged in now — more often than his mandolin, Russell plays lead electric guitar in a style that echoes Lynnyrd Skynnyrd, the Allman Brothers, and other Southern rock bands that influenced him as a kid. “Most bands grow out of rock and roll when they get to be our age,” Russell told me with a laugh. “We’ve done everything kind of backward.”

One of the most impressive things about the Gourds is their longevity. They have persevered for 16 years, getting better all the time, and they’ve done it in a once laid-back city where the cost of living has skyrocketed. Smith’s Steam Bowl shack and the $200 rent is a fading memory. They have mortgages now, and Smith told me, “Between us we have five daughters and seven sons.”

They rehearse now in an un-airconditioned former nursing home in South Austin; the room they utilize, once the kitchen, has no windows, much musicians’ equipment, and a homey pleasant clutter — one wall sports a bumper sticker that reads, “My honors student has a career in the service industry.” They get started by 11 a.m. and work no later than 1:30, and then they scatter to pick up their kids after school.

They’ve got devoted followings all over the country now, and they’ve escaped the European touring routine that sustains but also traps so many Texas bands. They’ve got no roadies — for roadies expect a living wage and tend to be temperamental wannabe musicians. The Gourds don’t have the star routine down in which all the instruments are in tune, the sound system is thoroughly checked, and they walk out and hit the chords of the first big hit. Their music is too intricate for that, and they dress like what they are — onetime hippies who are in their forties now.

Gourds image from Facebook

They’ve been at this together since 1995 because they love and respect what they have going. And now they’re no longer scuffling. After years of deserving it, the Gourds have hit the big time.

David Langford, the drummer’s father, told me, “Keith grew up listening to our records of The Band, and that’s how he plays the drums.” Jimmy Smith flaps his elbows like The Band’s Rick Danko when he performs, but he’s a better bass player. Danko played bass with a pick, as does Paul McCarthy.

Smith has the thick muscular hands of a blues guitarist, fingers up on the frets, working the thick strings with a callused thumb below, and with Keith Langford’s drumming that’s one of the reasons their sound is so tight. Smith’s voice is an untethered tenor, and he does sound a lot like Danko. The legacy of The Band and the Gourds’ inheritance is now inescapable.

Through the efforts of their manager Joe Priesnitz, who once represented Stevie Ray Vaughn, they signed a Vanguard contract overseen by executive Bill Bentley, an Austin expat who saw Willie Nelson first captivate an Austin crowd of hippies and anti-war militants assembled for the campaign of George McGovern in 1972, and for a while worked as a publicist for the multicultural rocker Doug Sahm.

Bentley engaged as the Gourds’ producer Larry Campbell, a gifted studio musician who has recorded with Willie, Sheryl Crow, Little Feat, K.D. Lang, Cyndi Lauper, and Levon Helm; he was a member of Bob Dylan’s road band from 1997 to 2004. Early last spring, when there was still snow and ice on the ground in upstate New York, the Gourds arrived for a dose of Campbell’s breathless style in Helm’s storied Barn Studio in Woodstock.

“It really is a barn, but a real nice barn,” Russell told me. “Levon lives in an upper story of it.” Did the legendary drummer and singer of The Band take part in the sessions? “No, he wandered through every so often in his house shoes. He was very friendly, and wanted to take particular care of Keith. ‘Do you need anything? Some water, a soda pop?’ Seems to be some kind of voodoo with drummers.'”

Of course that’s reasonable. In the late summer rehearsal I observed in Austin, Langford was the one who came out of that fire in the kitchen soaked in sweat.

As in past records, the smooth baritone Max Johnston contributes one of the best cuts on Old Mad Joy, the melodic rocker “Haunted.” But Jimmy Smith and Russell again claim most of the lead singing and writing credits. Smith slurs his lines more than Russell, and as a result his singing is not as accessible as his longtime partner’s. And that’s a shame; in wordplay and jitterbug of thought that’s as offbeat as Kerouac, his writing is remarkable.

His great song on this record is “Marginalized.” It’s a paean to a painful subject in our culture, fully in view amid Austin’s stream of BMW convertibles and Escalade SUVs. The hero of this song is the one standing out in the heat beside a stoplight with a message of his life’s misfortune scrawled on a cardboard sign, counting his fortune by the bills and coins dropped in a tin can, pushing all he owns in a cart heisted from a grocery store.

But elevated by Russell’s mandolin and the backup harmonies, the sorrowful song manages to soar. “Well, I’m taking it home on my tectonic plate/ crashed in a pyramid and claimed squatters’ rights/ shared a coop with a fellow wouldn’t shut up about a girl named Isis/ had to blend with the tourists when they came in the a.m…”

Earlier this year, Russell released an album called Shinyribs that was an instant favorite in Austin, singing only his songs and bringing just Keith Langford from the Gourds in a studio band that included one of the cosmic cowboy survivors, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the writer of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”)

Russell said it didn’t mean he was splitting off from the Gourds. “With a band like this you have to make a lot of compromises. Everybody’s got material they’d like to get out there. I’ve got boxes full of songs that I’ve never done anything with. Shinyribs is a break that allows it to be just me, with a terrific other band besides.”

Russell’s rock and roll high point on Old Mad Joy concerns that dreaded gig of road musicians, a dive in nowhere with a vile crowd that brings out the complaint: “My heart is black but in my sack/ I got a sammich and half a pack/ of vitriol and self-abuse/ who can I call to accuse and abuse/ for bringing me to … Peppermint City!” He said there is no such place, but then they’ve played them by the dozens. He laughed when I told him I’d never before heard a rock song with the word “vitriol.”

He also offers “Two Sparrows,” a song about Jesus that he wrote years ago. “His innocence held such clarity, Gethsemane still on his breath/ barefoot and burdened unjustly but love never leaving his breast/ from this began my wandering, my punishment for the crime/ of standing still among an angry mob, all of them friends of mine.”

Vanguard is pushing a rocker called “I Want It So Bad” as the single, but the best of it is Russell’s “Eyes of a Child.” “It’s true I am wicked, it’s true I am mean/ I must have lost my way chasing a dream/ It’s true I’ve done things that I’m ashamed of/ But I still need tenderness and the warmth of love/ I’ve come clean and I’m redeemed/ since I have seen through the eyes of a child.”

All of this may not sound entirely joyous. But turn it up. It’s some of the best music since “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

A few refrains in this piece previously appeared in the 30th anniversary edition of Jan Reid’s The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.

[Jan Reid is an author and music historian and a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, and his writing has also appeared in Esquire, GQ, Slate, and The New York Times. His books include Texas Tornado: The Life and Times of Doug Sahm, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (considered the definitive tale of Austin music in the 1970’s), the novel Comanche Sundown, and books about Tom DeLay and Karl Rove. His, memoir The Bullet Meant for Me, was the story of his mental, psychological, and emotional recovery from a brutal 1998 robbery and shooting in Mexico City — and his sustaining friendship with the two-time world champion boxer Jesus Chavez. Reid is now writing a biography of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.]

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