Preview 7-16-11 Maryville, TN

The Gourds rediscover that ‘Old Mad Joy’
that made them so good in the first place

By Steve Wildsmith
July 13, 2011

“Old Mad Joy” is an appropriate title for the forthcoming album by Texas-based country-rockers The Gourds, given that the process of making the record allowed the band members to rediscover just why they love what they do.

It wasn’t that member Kevin Russell and his bandmates were on the verge of calling it quits before traveling to “The Barn,” the upstate New York studio owned by Levon Helm of The Band, to make the album. But after years of producing themselves and slogging through a sluggish music industry that didn’t leave room for a lot of luxury, they needed something to turn the corner, Russell told The Daily Times this week.

“For the last few record, we self-produced them, and that’s not easy to do politically, emotionally, logistically,” he said. “We were on deadlines and touring throughout the whole time we were recording, and we tended to get under each other’s skin a little bit — just a lot of typical band power struggles that go on like any working environment.

“Obviously, we’ve been together for a long time, and the odds are against being together for a long time. We’ve seen them come and go, all the flavors of the month; it’s a constant turnover of new bands, but we’ve done what we’ve done through it all. And it did feel like we were nearing the end of something for the last couple of years. It’s been a struggle, and we’ve done well, but everybody’s got kids, and it’s been logistically difficult to do what we do.”

Difficult as it might have been on the guys, they made it seem easy, as least to those fans who flocked to The Gourds’ brand of quirky style of music. The band 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 albums are solid, but they don’t do justice to seeing the band perform live, which is a little like a bunch of crazy uncles getting plastered at a family reunion and taking over the picnic table, playing fiddle with chicken bones and percussion by thumping watermelons.

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. After releasing the album “Haymaker!” a few years ago, the band made the jump from the Yep Roc label to Vanguard, and in so doing chose to record at “The Barn” with long-time Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell.

Going in, Russell said, they didn’t know what to expect, but the relationship blossomed quickly.

“Sometimes, a producer can be hands-off — ‘You guys do what you do,’ and they’ll just sort of manage things,” Russell said. “What we found out is that he’s very hands-on. He has a lot of ideas, and he was really into it. The second day, Jimmy (Smith) had just finished doing the vocals on ‘Drop the Charges,’ and Larry just started laughing and laughing and saying, ‘I get it! I get you guys! This is great!’

“He just go so excited, and it was infectious. For a guy like him to act like that toward us is flattering and inspiring. He became Coach Campbell — he rearranged the songs and challenged us to play things we didn’t think we could play. The studio was like this two-story thing, and he was on a higher tier where the control room was, and he was like a preacher up on his pulpit. He’d just be waving wildly with his eyes squinted closed, and he really was literally conducting us.

“It was really a lot of fun,” Russell added. “It was an unforgettable experience for all of us, and we’ve had many conversations since about what a magical time it was.”

And, he added, the guys feel like they came away with the best album of their career. Russell’s enthusiasm is a reflection of the energy on the record — raw and intense while maintaining that lackadaisical vibe that makes The Gourds such a meandering musical tour de force, drifting from a languid melancholy ballad like “Two Sparrows” to a ragged “Exile on Main Street”-style rocker like “Drop What I’m Doing.”

“Larry up in his pulpit like that, it sort of united us,” Russell said. “We were suddenly a band again, and he was the guy directing us. It really united us as a team, and we hadn’t felt that in a long time just because of the nature of the beast. This record really does give us a much-needed boost of confidence and inspiration to go on for the next few years, to play these songs live and expand on them live.

“Given the music business today, who knows what’s going to happen. We’re pretty cynical, old, crotchety guys, so we don’t expect to sell a million records. But we are proud of the art, the craft of this record, and we’re elated that we created it.”

IF YOU GO: The Gourds
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 16
WHERE: “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson, 1820 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville
CALL: 977-1669

© 2011 The Daily Times

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