Last Thursday, I spoke with Kevin Russell, Mr. Shinyribs, for about 40 minutes. If I could’ve cleared my schedule for the day–and his more importantly–I’d have asked Russell questions for the rest of the afternoon.
Russell is nearly three albums into Shinyribs, 2010’s Well After Awhile, 2013’s Gulf Coast Museum, and upcoming Okra Candy. How Okra Candy wasn’t already used to describe Shinyribs’ songs and records before 2014, will remain a mystery. It’s simply perfect.
When you hear Russell sing songs such as “Sweeter Than The Scars,” “Country Cool,” and “Take Me Lake Charles,” Russell’s sweet, thunderous vocals coat his earthy, raw lyrics. It’s Okra Candy. Russell does things right. Lyrically, he doesn’t sugar coat anything or resort to those stereotypical, trite lines that we’re all too familiar with.
When he dives into mythos, it all comes from the hodgepodge of Southeastern culture. When he talks affectionately about Texas and Louisiana, it’s not dirt roads, beer, and whatever buzz words we’re using these days to make ourselves feel more “country.” No, Russell’s songs feel like an old, worn map of forgotten highways and towns that look like fading memories in the Texas-Louisiana region. The bayou.
Russell continuously highlights the good, the bad, and ugly of an area much forgotten by the outside, but beloved by those who know it true. Take “Song of Lime Juice & Despair.” The piano-rambling song has the chorus line “the wrinkle and twinkle of his eye.”
He paints the area so perfectly, I’ll be surprised if T-Bone Burnett didn’t at least try and get one of Russell’s rootsy bayou tunes in an episode of HBO’s True Detective. Maybe Marty and Rust would’ve have gotten along better on those road trips from Lafayette to Pelican Island.
Shinyribs will be playing The Blue Light tonight (Thursday). Watch/Listen to “The Song of Lime Juice & Despair” below.
New Slang: You’re coming up here to Lubbock pretty soon. When’s the last time you played here?
Kevin Russell: There was this one place we played years ago. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a game day, UT-Tech. We were hanging up there all day. I think we were playing with Cory Morrow. I don’t know, there was this guy who promoted it and he paid us a lot of money, I’m sure he paid Cory even more. We were there all day and it sucked for us since Texas Tech beat UT. We were bummed out and in the belly of the beast. You don’t want to have to deal with that [laughs]. We go to play the show and nobody was there hardly and this guy lost his ass. He split. Just left. I think Cory had gotten a deposit, so we weren’t totally screwed. It’s a lot funnier now [laughs]. But yeah, that’s one memorable Lubbock show. We’ve played some Blue Light shows as well back in the day. We’ve had to stop in Lubbock several times driving through an ice storm and things like that. You know, it’s like an island of civilization.
NS: Yeah. You’re using the word civilization pretty loosely right there [laughs].
KR: [Laughs]. Yeah. Course compared to Winters or something, it’s New York City.
NS: On these two Shinyribs records–and in general really–there’s an affection and nod to the Southeast. Other than being from Beaumont, what do you think the main reason you gravitated towards that melting pot of music and culture of that area?
KR: I think it’s the diversity of cultures down there–or I guess it’d just be the one mixed culture. It’s racially polarized, which is unfortunate down there. It’s part of living down there. There’s a lot of animosity on both sides which can make it very difficult. But at the same time, there’s all this shared culture of music, food, there’s a certain kind of humor there. I like regions that are kind of blurred like that. The South Texas border is like that. To some degree West Texas and New Mexico are kind of blurry. We have our borders that we’ve set up, but it’s the people in those regions that aren’t defined by those. If we could redraw the map to make it into more of a cultural map. That’s the way of the world over and causes a lot of problems obviously. But here, it’s interesting and fascinating to go down there. There are whole genres that have lived and died down there that most of the world has never heard before. Stuff like swamp pop. Most people outside of the region don’t know. And a lot of young people who live there don’t know anything about it because it’s kind of done. That’s something I came to relatively late. My parents didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know about it, but over the years of learning music, it kind of lead me back. It’s the wealth of history and music–and the food is awesome. Music and food, that’s my two main factors [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. With different regional music sounds, to really appreciate them, you’ve got to see them live. You’re going to understand certain styles better than hearing it on a record or over the radio. And regions also get represented by the largest thing. Like with Louisiana, people think of New Orleans jazz–which is perfectly fine, but there’s also all those little pockets of music.
KR: Yeah. Southwest Louisiana is its own thing musically. Nothing to do with New Orleans. Now they’re all Saints fans, but that’s about it [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Going back to the food thing, that’s another thing that sticks out. There’s a lot of different food references. In that way, it really reminds me of Guy Clark. You can listen to a Guy Clark record and just count numerous food references.
KR: Oh yeah. Yeah, he certainly does sing about food too.
NS: On a lot of these songs, you’re playing ukulele. I think a lot of folks think of the ukulele as this novelty instrument. It’s really misunderstood by the public. How’d you get into writing on and playing the ukulele?
KR: My mother-in-law gave my kids an old ukulele she had played when we was a little girl. It was a nice one. Wasn’t the best one, but good enough to stay in tune. I originally learned to play and tune it to show my kids how to play it and get started on it. Of course they weren’t interested in it at all. “Eh, no thanks.” My youngest said he could hit stuff with it [laughs]. So it really started with my mother-in-law giving us hers that she’d played as a little girl. But I liked it so much. I’d been the same way with it. Thought it was just a base instrument on par with the recorder you play in elementary school. It’s just a simple base instrument and not thought highly of or the same as like the guitar, horns, or piano. The sounds, the way it’s tuned, the chords sound so different. I remembered, out in West Texas, a buddy of mine, he’d taken up ukulele when he lived out in Alpine. I was hanging in Alpine and he played all these songs on it. I remember how cool it sounded and thought I’d learn weird, cool songs on it. That’s fun to me. Learning weird songs that you wouldn’t think of playing on it. Whatever I can find song wise, I can learn on the ukulele. That’s largely how I got started on it, doing it just for fun and to amuse myself. Then naturally I started writing on it. It’s always around. It’s small. It’s easy to play. That’s the beauty of it. It really is so simple, you don’t have to think about it. Part of what I do, I don’t want to think on stage. I just like things to happen. Spirit of the moment is really what my show is about. Try and let moments happen. Try and get out of the way and just let them happen. So ukulele is perfect for that since you don’t have to think about it. Some of the chords are one finger. With the electric guitar, which I play as well, you’re a little more committed. You’re more focused and using more of your brain on stage. Now the greatest guitarists, they don’t. I’m not the greatest of guitar players [laughs]. If I could play guitar the way I play ukulele, then maybe I’d be onto something.
NS: You mentioned Alpine earlier. I’m originally from Ft. Stockton so I know that area pretty well. You have the song “Limpia Creek” on Gulf Coast Museum. I’m assuming you’ve stayed there.
KR: Yeah. That song is all about that region. The Chihuahuan Desert. Me and the family took a vacation through New Mexico and West Texas one year and had the greatest time. It was the day before my youngest’s fifth birthday. He wanted to go swimming that morning but the pool was still too cold for him so he was really pissed off about it. But really, it’s a love song about The Chihuahuan Desert. I love West Texas and New Mexico, again for the food, but also for stark beauty. Monsoon season out there such a great thing to see. When it happens, it can be really beautiful.
NS: One of the best things I’ve ever heard about West Texas was something Jeff Tweedy of Wilco said. It was in this magazine article about Marfa and he’d played down there one time. I guess the morning before the show, he’d been walking or jogging around downtown Marfa and said he realized that for the first time in years, he could hear his own heart beating. It can just be so quiet out there. You can really just slow down and think clearly and take it in.
KR: Yeah. It’s a special place for sure.
NS: So for the first Shinyribs record, how big of a time period are those songs from? Like what’s the oldest song from the record?
KR: They go back pretty far–some of them. I’m not sure what’s really the oldest, but some of those songs could go back five to 10 years. I’m still bringing up songs. On the next Shinyribs record, there’s a song that I’ve had at least 10 years. It was really for The Gourds, but The Gourds didn’t want to do it. I always thought it was a great song and that they were crazy for not wanting to [laughs]. A lot of these songs I just held on to and remembered them. I’d have them recorded somewhere and forget about them. Then when it’s time to make a record, start going back and listening to them. The ones that stick out, use them. I may take one that’s good but not finished and finish it up. So some of those songs may be 10 years old, maybe more. Like “Poor People Store” had been around for a long time. I liked it, but just didn’t know how to do it. Didn’t know how it was going to work. There was something there. Then I learned how to play the ukulele and played it on there, and that’s it; it’s a ukulele song. It was just waiting around for me to learn ukulele.
NS: A lot of young songwriters, they feel like they can only use certain words in their songs because of the genre they’re trying to write in or something. You on the other hand, it feels like you’re comfortable using any word. All words are available for use. I guess my example would be from “Poor People Store” where you have the line “some Christina Aguilera black masquera.” I’m not sure how many young songwriters would ever say that.
KR: Yeah. I could have said it another way, but I push myself on that front. I really detest cliché writing. When people talk about catching a midnight train. I fucking hate that. Come on, dude. Really. You’ve never caught a single train in your life and you’re talking about catching a midnight train no less. Come on, that has nothing to do with your life experiences. I feel as writers, we’re supposed to write about where we’re from, who we are. That’s our duty, our responsibility. It’s to write about the world around us and if we can create it in a poetic way, that’s icing on the cake. That’s what I try and do. Be an inventive writer, a creative writer. That’s part of my value system. I have strong opinions on writing and how I expect writers to write. And when they don’t, I’m very critical of it. I don’t always say it to them because I’m also a very polite person, but if I was in your job line, I’d just be ripping people and everybody would hate me.
NS: [Laughs]. I know what you mean. I think some people, when you’re critical of their songwriting, they take it too personal.
KR: Yeah. You obviously don’t want anyone to criticize your writing, but if it’s a legitimate, intelligent criticism, nothing wrong with that. I won’t take it personal. But yeah, some people will get offended since they think it’s such a big part of who they are. There’s not enough criticism in the world anymore, especially in the music world. There’s a few guys I know who will truly criticize records. Especially in the Texas scene. It’s where everybody takes care of one another–which I do love about it. Everybody supports each other. But it makes it hard as a writer, you’re on the inside too. It’s a tough position to be in. That’s why everybody would hate me if I was a writer [laughs].
NS: You know, I think part of it is because of social media. There is criticism–not well thought out–but criticism none the less on Twitter all the time. It’s not from the inside. But with Twitter, as a music fan, you’re really able to say whatever you want about any band at any time you feel like it and have a relatively good chance of that said band reading what you said. But, it’s probably actually made it a tighter community within since there’s this “us against them” thing in this weird, strange way.
KR: Yeah, you’re right. That’s true. It’s an odd thing. I think a lot of scenes are like that now. Everybody’s hunkering down [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Something I find interesting about the Shinyribs show you do is that you don’t play any Gourds songs. I think that’s something that’s actually important and really takes some balls to do. Because, you’re really telling fans to listen to these new songs and you’re not catering to a nostalgic fan base. Was that a conscious decision to do that from the beginning or was it more like you’re doing this side project and have all these new songs and you’re doing them and then a handful of shows in, you just deciding that’s how it’d be?
KR: Yeah, it just kind of happened that way. I was still doing The Gourds pretty regularly when I started Shinyribs. It started as an outlet for other songs. I wasn’t going to do any Gourds songs because there were still Gourds shows. I didn’t think it was right to do that. For one, it’d kind of dilute the songs. With a lot of those songs, I felt they worked because The Gourds were playing them. It’s a certain sound and certain way we’d do them. You know, I’ve got a lot of respect for what we’d done for a lot of years. I didn’t want to cheapen that in any way. Also, it was a freedom to play other songs. Then I got fans from that. The more I did it, the more fans I got. People were coming to Shinyribs shows, mainly in Houston where I’d started doing them, and they were Shinyribs fans but didn’t know who The Gourds were. They didn’t even know. “You’ve got another band somebody said?” This was pretty cool. From that point, I became enamored by it; having this blank slate, this canvas where I could do whatever I wanted with it. It could be untouched–or almost untouched–by anything I’d done with The Gourds. Now, I’ve got three or four hours worth of material for Shinyribs and none of it’s Gourds. I don’t need them. Now, if I didn’t have enough songs, then maybe I’d be borrowing some of them. Some songs started out on the Shinyribs side and made their way on Gourds records. Now I think, “Dang, I really should be playing that because technically that’s a Shinyribs song anyway [laughs].” Maybe one day. Sometimes when I’m playing a solo show, I’ll do them. Right now I’m up here at Folk Alliance playing shows by myself. People up here probably don’t know who The Gourds are. They’ll probably tell you they’ve heard of them though [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. I like that with people. If they were supposed to like a band, they do like it regardless of if they do or not.