Austin Chronicle: Dog Years - The Gourds' Family Values

© Charlie Llewellin

Dog Years - The Gourds' family values
By Margaret Moser
Fri., Sept. 23, 2011

In 17 years together, the Gourds have fielded everything the greater music business has thrown its way, short of that coveted million-seller or a Grammy. Then again, the local quintet of oddball personalities is little interested in the effort it takes to work a massive hit. If life's a tuxedo, the Gourds wear brown shoes.

"Brown shoes don't make it," claimed Frank Zappa, but he didn't live to meet the Gourds. Had he, Zappa might have glimpsed the same Big Pink potential Larry Campbell did. Produced by the onetime Bob Dylan sideman at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York, the Gourds' 10th studio album, Old Mad Joy, reflects both Campbell's belief in the band and that of its new label, respected roots indie Vanguard Records.

It's a good fit all around given that, as the Gourds roll toward the end of their second decade, they're ranked among Austin's perennial must-sees. With a documentary currently in the works, their legacy remains the living, breathing, old, weird Americana populated by hapless misfits and the ever-hopeful. Considering the landscape that cultivated this knotty hodgepodge of South­ern gothic musical everymen, loners, and survivors, the Gourds are rightfully branded as mavericks in a genre that demands authenticity and plainspoken truth.

Listen to the Band

The Gourds share their birth year, 1994, with a notable class of Austinites: Storyville, Don Walser's Pure Texas Band, Sincola, Ian Moore, Bad Livers, Pariah, and a young trio called Spoon. The original foursome of Kevin Russell, Jimmy Smith, Claude Ber­nard, and drummer Charlie Llewellin released its celebrated, Band-like debut, Dem's Good Beeble, three years later. Stadium Blitzer in 1998 served as a sophomore continuance, its non sequitur lyricism and gospel truths already claiming growing numbers of believers.

Both discs hooked the and roots-rock world, making the Gourds poster children for the post-Uncle Tupelo No Depression set. Keith Langford replaced Llewellin after Blitzer, having been amiably fired by the Gourds' sister band the Damna­tions. Max Johnston worked with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco and made the Gourds a quintet by 1999's Ghosts of Hallelujah, his array of instruments girding and enriching the band's sound. Just prior to that, sometime in 1998, came live EP Gogitchyer­shine­box, in which the group cracked open an off-the-cuff, kingdom-come version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" that went viral before there was such a thing.

It was a particularly canny and oh-so-Gourdian thing for Russell to do, deconstructing Snoop Dogg's sexist, pro-drug rap into a nasal, mandolin-driven lope. It makes singing about dope-smoking and bitches as nonchalant as a dude riding in his "Escalade" or the retarded girl in "El Paso," a phrase that provoked ire from a local DJ who refused to play that opening cut from 2000's Sugar Hill Records debut, Bolsa de Agua.

The unintended popularity of "Gin and Juice" opened the Gourds to wider appreciation from an audience that valued literacy with a good beat. After their first label, doomed Austin indie Watermelon Records, went under amid legal squabbles, Bolsa de Aqua began a cozy relationship with Sugar Hill that lasted through 2002 with Cow Fish Fowl or Pig. Two LPs for Eleven Thirty Records (2004's Blood of the Ram and Heavy Ornamentals two years later) and a pair for Yep Roc (2007's Noble Creatures and 2009's Haymaker!) left the band with loads of indie label baggage, an endless repertoire of beloved material, and in dire need of a different production force.

Enter Larry Campbell, musical director of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles Sessions, and Vanguard Records, as prestigious a label a neo-folk band could want. This spring produced the 12 tracks that became Old Mad Joy. For the band's rabid fans, it was the dream realized: Austin's version of the Band recording on the real Band's stomping grounds. Langford recalls snickering in the car with his sister at the sound of Rick Danko's singing.

"It's amazing how your parents' music can really sink in with you and emerge later," he chuckles. "A lot of our similarities are happenstance though, like the acoustic instruments, Jimmy's melodic bass, our Southern sound. I play traditional grip like Levon, et cetera.

"There are a lot of similarities, and I don't think anyone in our band doesn't like the Band, though Jimmy says he doesn't like 'Rag Mama Rag' too much.

"Has he lost his marbles?"

If the notion of recording in a barn sharing a common wall with the house of the Band's drummer and iconic vocalist Levon Helm seems like a cinematic moment, the meeting itself was anticlimatic.

"He wasn't too interested in the music," shrugs Russell. "But he did come around a couple times and say hi to everybody. Sweet old fella."

Helm didn't buy billboards declaring the Gourds the next big Band, and that's as it should be. The Gourds, after all, already boasted Doug Sahm as mentor before and after his 1999 death. That's the vibe more inherent to the Gourds, whose version of "Nuevo Laredo" stole the show on 2009 Sahm tribute Keep Your Soul. That Campbell was briefly a member of Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet means the mojo was righteous for Old Mad Joy.

B-Sides & Deep Cuts

Whatever story its prolific studio output maintains, the Gourds are a different entity live. This is the arena where the artist-fan dynamic is deliriously successful, the lightning that can't be trapped in a bottle. The Gourds are a five-headed, shape-shifting beast awakened, roaring to life electric, proud, and armed and ready to display its chameleon colors and skin. The stage is home, where it thrives, fed and maintained by a remarkably devoted fan base (see "Life, Death, and Shoofly Pie," Sept. 13, 2002).

Amid suffocating August heat, the Gourds followed an afternoon sound check at the Nutty Brown Cafe, working over Jimmy Smith's "Tumblin' Dice"-like "Drop What I'm Doing" by ambling into the bar for a discussion on whether band years are equivalent to dog years. No question about it, came the consensus.

In a way, Johnston is the luckiest dog in the pack, able to do tricks with his instrument of choice. The son of "Dollar" Bill Johnston and brother of Michelle Shocked, Johnston's freewheeling solos light the band from within. Brimstone and ash spew from his fiddle and mandolin or whichever strings feel right, because the Gourds' instrumental makeup defines the band as much as the human personalities.

"[The instrument] I enjoy playing the most is different night to night," admits Johnston. "It depends on what I can hear the best in any given situation. If I can hear it, I can play it a lot better, which – surprise – makes it a lot more fun. If I had to pick one, it might be the banjo, but I can rarely hear that very well."

Bernard, who's played accordion with the Gourds since their inception when he's not keeping rhythm on acoustic guitar, also finds the choice of instruments worthy of discussion.

Accordion is "a very rewarding instrument to play because of its physicality. You squeeze notes out of it. My accordions get these big holes in the corners of the bellows, and that almost makes it more fun, though not really, because the air runs out faster and you have to squeeze it and pull it faster until the damn thing is pretty much shot.

"I think the more physically difficult an instrument is to play, the more I enjoy it."

As the five bandmates later make their way onstage to a sparse crowd, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" booms from the P.A. "Oooo, for the red, white, and blue," drawls Russell, leaning into the microphone to join Fogerty with his soulful East Texas twang. As the song fades out, Russell leads the band into "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" then "I Want It So Bad," the first track on Old Mad Joy. That's the organic spontaneity that's kept the Gourds so beloved to their longtime fans while cultivating new ones.

"Old ones know how to read the show," explains Russell afterward. "They know the various modes and tones to look for. New fans are bubble-eyed with anticipation, thinking we will play everything they ever wanted and just like the record, maybe. Old ones wait for the seconds that define and spark. New ones can't wait. I think we take care of both."

Smith agrees, calling the old-timers "geezourds" hoping for "B-sides and deep cuts, while a newbie might want that Snoop cover thrill, hoping they didn't arrive to the ball too late."

At this end-of-summer show, only a few dozen diehards are out in force. Local Gourds appearances are legend, a roiling sea of sweaty humanity. If their usual performances are what Russell describes as a cross between "a revival, a house party, a pep rally, and a pow wow," tonight is what Langford flatly terms, "a dud gig."

For Smith, an off-gig is a chance "to flex some of the muscle I forget I have, like the way I feel after bowling. Most times, I come away from a gimpy gig with higher morale and some new moves, riffs, phrasing, because there was less inhibition and pressure to really stick it."

"If you're doing it right, nobody wants to leave to go to the bathroom," Langford jokes. "I think we do that on a good night. That's what Old Mad Joy means to me. Those nights where nobody wants to go to the bathroom, including me."

Through the Eyes of a Child

Seventeen years represents a substantial amount of time in any life – dog or human. In 1994, the Gourds were young and single. Now, all five are married and count 12 children among their respective broods, a change in life reflected in Russell's "Eyes of a Child" on Old Mad Joy. Whatever they've learned as a band, nothing beats the family values of parenting to keep adults in line.

"My wife and I cuss like sailors," acknowledges Smith. "It's easy to find yourself saying, 'Pick up the fucking toys' or 'Put the goddamn Star Wars game away.'"

The maturity of Old Mad Joy doesn't substantially surpass the previous recordings; it simply underscores the Stones-solid feel of bandmates who grew up together when they thought they were already grown. Russell's "Eyes of a Child" is in good company with his Band-worthy ballad "Two Sparrows" and Jimmy Smith's word whimsy in "Melchert" or "Drop the Charges." Johnston's "Haunted" features Campbell's pedal driving the song so beautifully it could be an instrumental. If anything, Old Mad Joy reinforces the separate-but-equal status between Russell and Smith, who do not write together.

Crucial to the Gourds' infrastructure is the way that having families handed the band a matrix for how to work together – a massive challenge for any group, but especially for one with dual frontmen. It's not exactly oil and water, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but different universes may be close.

"There's so much between us that we're like a mountain and a river," emails Russell. "In the beginning, before the Gourds, we were more like student and teacher. Then once we became presented as equals something broke. It was slowly and subtly peeled back, quietly filed down until the connection split apart. This was necessary. There was a period of grief and anger, which gave way to a silent truce, but now I think we are coming into a more mature partnership that benefits from each of our perspectives. And from time to time, like a volcano, we have a blowout that sort of renews the terrain between us.

"It's frustrating and challenging for all of us to live and work within a group of equals. I can't decide if this is a democracy or an anarchy. A little of both, I guess. One thing's for sure: It has taught us the value of compromise."

Smith is typically arcane in his assessment of not writing with Russell.

"I think there has to be a need for a co-write. With us, we always pulled enough tone, rhythm, melody, and enjoyment out of the walk-in individually. Then through the prep kitchen, lift it up to the line, hand it over to the front of the house, put it on the table with its legs sticking up, and measure it by the gratuity."

In other words, the two remain river deep, mountain high. Langford mediates with a Charlie Watts-like flourish.

"We don't disagree about creative stuff much," states the drummer. "We like to leave it nice and open-ended. If you push it too much, it squishes something equally as good or better that only happens in a free atmosphere. Most friction is over the external complexities of the band biz. Like, 'What gigs are we doing and when?,' 'Who's doing an interview?,' and, 'Do we go have dinner with some fans before the show?.' Real difficult stuff."

Or as Smith pithily observes, "All the real estate in betwixt is a musical experience that plays for keeps."

The Gourds throw a wingding for Old Mad Joy Friday, Sept. 23, at Threadgill's World Headquarters.

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