Vintage Gourds: Feb. 28, 1997

photograph by Shelley Rutledge

A Gourds show is a joyful event, an exorcism of angst, a tall cold one and a smoky tree; "It's a bone white smile of a night." For those who know and see them regularly, their holy hoedowns are a grounding mechanism, a necessary component of life which, once taken away, can make the addicted pretty damn ornery. But when they're in town, hot damn! There's gonna be some foot stompin'!

Over the past year or so, interest in the Gourds has begun to soar. Besides releasing their debut CD, Dem's Good Beeble, their local gigs have been getting bigger and the tours lengthier. The band spent most of January and February on a tour of Europe that started with the MIDEM Conference in Cannes. Then, within weeks of returning home, they'll play a South by Southwest showcase with the Damnations, Kelly Willis, and the Jayhawks that's sure to pack Stubb's to the rafters. The exponential increase in attention being laid upon alt-country music indicates that the time is right for them, but do they really fall into this ambiguous and ever-growing genre?

According to Kevin Russell, who, along with Jimmy Smith, is the group's main vocalist and songwriter, "That depends on who you ask. We're very malleable... we use a lot of different styles. [In Europe] we're depicted as alternative country -- we've been called a `No Depression band' in some of the papers, probably because they get that magazine and that's what they have to relate to.

"It also depends on who's doin' the asking," continues Russell. "On the way over [to Europe], the airport security guy asked me what kind of music we played, and I said `country' because I figured he'd relate to that. But if he'd have asked Jimmy he would have been told `rock & roll.' Jimmy doesn't want to admit that he plays country, I think, but he does. That's what I play. When I'm playing the music I'm thinking that way, you know? And I think I'm just as valid a country music writer and performer as anyone."

The reserved confidence of the band is well-founded. The songwriting of both Smith and Russell is immediate and timeless; the songs feel like they've been played for decades in all remote and guitar-laden corners of Appalachia, only never quite this well. Likewise, the lyrics are simultaneously evocative of the country/bluegrass/folk traditions they push forward as well as sarcastically indicative of contemporary rock and country.

Songs like "Trampled by the Sun" with its chorus of whoops and hollers and "The Web" with its slow sing-a-long build-up and subsidence are aural roller-coasters that'll convert even the most country-jaded rock fan. You can't help but yee-haw along with 'em. Charlie Llewellin's rolling and spasmodic drumming and brushing combined with Claude Bernard's steady accordion and harmonies make the perfect setting for the dueling hickisms of Smith and Russell. With some people you just know it'd be a hell of a good time to sit around listening to old records and burn one down -- and these guys fit that bill. Good nature and hospitality exudes from any stage they occupy and, if the crowd responds, they'd just as soon play forever.

Alongside the musical talent and the solid songs, the Gourds seem to be fully aware of their place in the modern sound-time continuum. Both Smith and Russell are former members of the Picket Line Coyotes, a truly DIY punk rock outfit that made the journey from Louisiana to Texas, eventually landing and disbanding in Austin where, with Bernard and Llewellin, the Gourds were born. The implications of the switch from punk to country are not lost on them, either. Indeed, it seems a natural thing that, when a musician's focus turns more to the craft of songwriting, the music tends to calm down a bit; just ask Paul Westerberg or Jay Farrar. And while the Gourds continue to pound out a steady stream of inspired live shows, the intricacy and immediate familiarity of their songs -- as well as the sheer number of them -- is proof enough of their dedication to the craft.

"I've been writing songs since I was 14," says Russell. "That's all I've ever really done, all I want to do. Jimmy, too. I write mine and Jimmy writes his and then we bring them to the band and do the arrangements. We've been wanting to collaborate more, we just haven't. It's always been a hole-up alone thing."

In addition to the wealth of originals, them Gourds ain't opposed to the occasional cover. Neil Young's "Barstool Blues" is one they worked up the last time in Europe, a backwoods Stones/Beatles medley/jam has surfaced at the Hole, and Bill Monroe has seen his share of tributary stage time. But perhaps the most infamous of these is a rompin' take of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice." When asked if this tune has vanished from the repertoire, Russell laughs.

"No, I think we're still doing it," he says. "The song was sort of a problem within the band for a while. I originally did it solo at Waterloo Ice House and the guys loved it. When we played it as a band for a larger crowd, we saw a certain reaction; it'd be taken as a novelty song, which isn't all bad, but that wasn't what it's about. I got the arrangement together because I love Snoop, I love that song. Now, though, I'm trying to make a point that, yeah, this big dumb white guy is playing rap -- black music -- but that's what happens. I mean, Jimmie Rodgers? Hell, Elvis, the Beatles, they were white guys playing black music. Me doing `Gin and Juice' is an extreme example, but it's a perfect modern version of the same thing."

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