Left Lane: Texas Icons Remain Anonymous

Texas icons remain anonymous in mainstream America
By Rich Gibson
October 6, 2011

If their ultimate goal was to be regarded under-the-radar lifetime achievers, The Gourds have succeeded magnificently.

Ten studio records and a handful of live projects, notwithstanding, the Austin, Texas five-man band is an affectionate hit in its hometown, but remains little more than cult favorites throughout the lower 48.

To be sure, a Gourds concert in the tri-state region would attract only the most marginally curious. Their music, spanning what seems an almost impossible-to-imagine 17 years, is still considered completely beyond the pale by most accounts.

Hard to believe, then, the band has managed to survive with its original members fully intact.

There have been numerous label changes, including L.A. based Vanguard Records which last month released another in the Gourds' sublime catalog of critically-acclaimed if somewhat obscure masterpieces, "Old Mad Joy" to delighted fans.

Count the Lane as a loyal Gourds' supporter and longtime listener. I still maintain the highlight of my trip to Super Bowl XLV in February was viewing a night-before Gourds' gig north of Dallas at an out-of-the-way venue, Dan's Silver Leaf in Denton.

The band spoke that night of an impending change of scenery north to upstate New York to lay down tracks for a new CD which would become 'Old Mad Joy.'

With a label upgrade and a cautious approach at 'enhancing' their sound, the band entered Levon Helm's Woodstock, N.Y. based studio. Their wish list for soliciting an in-demand producer was realized when Larry Campbell agreed to spin the dials.

It is by pure coincidence this record comes out in the aftermath of a recent LL story regarding Donna The Buffalo vocalist Tara Nevins who, likewise, recorded a 2011 record in Helm's studio with Campbell at the control board.

With co-vocalists and songwriters Jimmy Smith and Kevin Russell, Campbell somehow managed to find a happy medium - injecting a fuller sound, though successfully maintaining the band's traditional low profile image.

Russell spoke highly of the outcome in a press release for the new disc.

"Larry's qualification and compassion instilled in us a desire to achieve more than we thought we could as a combo and as individuals. He used the templates and elements of our original demos to create something novel, intriguing and much more interesting."

Smith wrote six of the record's songs and more closely stays the course from the band's mid-90s origins.

Russell, meanwhile, penned five and continues to evolve as the more 'serious' author of the two. In fact, Russell could likely compose a number of top 40 country hit tunes in the proper setting.

In fact, Russell's "Peppermint City" could almost be considered a mild departure from Gourdian. I wouldn't be surprised if the band shopped the song around Americana and public radio markets.

Though Smith and Russell share co-billing as effective vocalists, the Gourds' remaining members: Claude Bernard (accordion, keyboards); Max Johnston (banjo, fiddle) and Keith Langford (drums) all contribute various singing roles.

"I love all the records we've done to this point. But on this one, we had somebody (Campbell) to expedite our talent," Smith stated. "Larry definitely got our attention. And the facility was just off the chart great."

Not so surprising considering the likes of Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes and Muddy Waters have all made records there.

Also not so surprisingly, no area dates can be found on the Gourds tour page which includes a number of coast to coast stops.

The band's most likely regional live date is Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom a venue they have previously played.


THE Gourds did receive some national notoriety in 2006 when they performed in an episode of the NBC show Friday Night Lights. They've also been showcased on PBS TV's Austin City Limits....

Gibson may be reached at rgibson@timesleaderonline.com

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