Preview (2) 10-15-09 Knoxville, TN

October 08. 2009

When Kevin Russell, vocalist for the quirky Americana band The Gourds, calls East Tennessee a "hotbed" of freakdom, he means it with great fondness.

To Russell and his bandmates, those fringe elements of society -- the individuals who get branded as "weird" or "odd" or downright freakish -- those are their kinds of people. They're sought out and offered a place in The Gourds' kingdom, because they're the ones with stories to tell.

And for a band that thrives on a unique brand of storytelling, those tales are the stuff that makes life worth living and singing about.

"To a certain degree, I think we are freak magnets because of the nature of what we do," Russell told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. "I think musicians in general are going to tell you that you'll meet some interesting people and quite a cast along the way. We just appreciate people, especially colorful people with personality, because they're just more interesting to us.

"We like to hang out with somebody like that and hear their story, to get a feel for their language and the way they talk and the phrases they use. To us, America is a great place that way -- still full of crazy, crazy people. We like to keep them hidden in America -- they're definitely not put on TV or talked about -- but we generally seem to find them everywhere we go.

"It's been that way since The Gourds first debuted in 1996 with "Dem's Good Beeble," quickly establishing themselves as a phenomenal live act, something Russell has described as "kind of a cross between a revival and a house party and a pep rally and a powwow." The group found minor fame with a cover of rapper Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice," released on the 1998 EP "gogitchershinebox," and ever since, the guys have earned a reputation as the Primus of roots music -- heavy on accordion flourishes and percussion and a washboard full of string instruments thrown into the mix.

With the band's most recent album -- "Haymaker!," released earlier this year -- The Gourds got back to more of an Americana sound than the classic and psychedelic rock overtones of their previous two records, "Heavy Ornamentals" and "Noble Creatures."

The record developed, Russell said, when the band performed at a wedding for original drummer Charlie Llewellin, who paid the guys $1,000.

"We took that and decided to go rent out a studio and record these songs that me and (bassist) Jimmy (Smith) had," he said. "It was really going to be a glorified demo; just the basic idea that we could give to the other guys so they could work on their parts. But once it was recorded, the sound was so cool and the performance was so relaxed and live-sounding, we realized that was exactly what we wanted the record to be -- us playing in a room.

"Sometimes that's really hard to get when you try, so we felt we should just trust our intuition about it. We had it done in a couple of days, and the other parts just needed to be filled in. To me, it was a little more liberating and easier to do, based on everyone's lives and schedules. Basically, the overwhelming motive and drive behind it was that we just had to make a record.

"It's difficult, however, to imagine anything in The Gourds universe as "overwhelming." There's such a laid-back vibe to the band that, if you didn't already know what ace musicians they are, you'd swear they sneak away to find a shady spot to nap in during the middle of the afternoon. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- although, relaxed as Russell might sound, there's always been a hardscrabble work ethic to the band.

"Our motivation and goal is to do whatever we've got to do to get it done, and I think 'Haymaker!' does have that kind of feel," Russell said. "It's sort of driven by the necessity and reality of our lives. We spend so much time playing that there's not a lot of time for anything else. Making a record has become tough.

"But, he added, that's the group's lot in this musical life -- make a record and tour; rinse and repeat. They love it, regardless of whatever headaches it occasionally causes. And when they come to a place like Knoxville, -- where they'll perform Thursday (Oct. 15), it makes it worthwhile.

Because that, Russell said, is where they find their people.

"East Tennessee is a hotbed of freaks," he said with a chuckle. "In general, it has a regional color all its own. It's just a real special place. That's where country music came from and still comes from. I don't know why Nashville got it all, because the heart of it is still there in Knoxville."

The Gourds
WITH: Shinyribs
WHEN: 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15
WHERE: 4620 Reinvented, 4620-A Kingston Pike, Knoxville
CALL: 558-0183

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