by: Thomas D. Mooney
We caught up with Kevin Russell, the always entertaining Mr. Shinyribs last week. He’s playing tonight (Friday, Oct 17) at The Blue Light. The third Shinyribs album, Okra Candy, should be coming out in the spring of 2015.
Watch/Listen to “Sweeter Than the Scars” below.
New Slang: It was a while back now, but you guys played Medicine Stone. How was that?
Kevin Russell: It’s a great scene. I hadn’t played Medicine Stone before, but over the last year or so, I’ve gotten to be good friends with the Turnpike Troubadour guys. They’re a great group of guys. Then I’m good buddies with Cody [Canada], Johnny Burke–so like a lot of those Red Dirt events, it’s a big family reunion every time. We’re a newer member of the family, but real happy to be part of it [laughs]. They’re real generous and supportive.
NS: Yeah. The music festival part of music, obviously it’s great for fans since you’re really getting your money’s worth. You’re seeing a bunch of bands. But they also tend to be more of an event. Does the songwriter in you ever get bothered by that aspect of it–where the crowd isn’t necessarily paying attention to what you’re saying?
KR: No, not really. I love to write and think I’ve written some great stuff, but really, when I take the stage, it’s about a show. It’s about entertaining people and it works well in a festival setting. It’s all about the moment and creating energy between the stage and the crowd. That’s what I’m all about. I don’t ever worry about if anybody’s listening to my words. That’ll come in time. If they like it and take it home and listen, then they start listening to the words. I’m not one of these guys who goes on stage and confesses his and expects everyone to listen. I’m not a preacher–although, I do have moments where I scream like one. If I am a preacher, I’m a charismatic, screaming Pentecostal preacher [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. What was the strangest thing you saw while looking into the crowd?
KR: I saw a person in a penguin costume waddling behind the crowd. I don’t know if anyone else saw it, but I swear I saw a big penguin out there. It was cold out there [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. You’re always going to see something out there that you’ll never see again. So when you’re working on a song, are you someone who erases parts if it doesn’t work or are you someone who keeps everything in a pile elsewhere just in case it works in something else?
KR: There are things that I’ve written that I really love that are just sitting around. I’ve tried using them in songs, but they haven’t worked. I write a lot of poetry, a lot of free verse stuff. A lot of it, I like. Eventually, I’ll go and use parts of things in songs. I kind of think of it as song farming. I have this crop of words here and this crop of music over here. I put them together sometimes and make these hybrids. A lot of times, I’ll write a song and lyrically it’s not working. Part of it isn’t working. Lines, usually I won’t keep unless I think it’s really great or significant. Generally, I’m a music first person and the words come second. I do keep a lot of words on hand though in case I get stuck.
NS: You mentioned poetry. Have you thought of putting out a book of poems?
KR: Yeah, I thought about it. I’ve thought about putting out a lyric book or publishing other writing, but I’ve never done it. I think it’s the knowledge that the biggest selling poetry book in American history was written by Jewel, A Night Without Armor. That’s the biggest selling poetry book in the United States and that makes me realize that there’s probably no reason to publish one [laughs]. I love poetry, but there’s no money to be made in it. I guess for vanity’s sake.
NS: I didn’t know that about Jewel. I knew poetry wasn’t exactly big sellers. I know Ryan Adams has put out a couple in the last few years.
KR: Yeah. It is a cool thing to do. It certainly is something that’s crossed my mind, but never have put forth the effort. My stuff is on scraps of paper in piles throughout my life. It’d take me a lot time to find all the poetry. Maybe one day. I do a lot of photography and visual art too. Thought about doing that. It’s a big task though, putting a book together.
NS: When you’re writing, do you try and be conscious on how words are pronounced and how certain syllables and sounds fit your voice better than others? Your voice is obviously a really powerful tool.
KR: I don’t really think a lot about that. I probably should think more about it. There’s been a few times when recording, the lyric, you’re just not able to understand what I’m saying. I’m singing as clearly as I can, but just phonetically, it’s not working out. When I’m writing the words, to me, it’s about the words. But there are sometimes where certain words together don’t work like you thought they would. There’s a song coming out on the next record that’s like that. It’s an older song. I tried to go back and rewrite the words because I just didn’t think they made any sense–well, they made sense to me–but they were just kind of weird and wanted them to make a little more sense. I wanted it to be a little more linear. It didn’t work. I tried, but sometimes you write a song and it is what it is. Sometimes I feel that once it’s written, it’s written. It’s done. It’s hard to go back and change a song.
NS: A lot of people, they say they can’t write while on the road. I guess partly due to distractions and time constraints. They’d rather write at home. Are you that way?
KR: I can write anywhere. Anytime the inspiration strikes, I’m able to get it down and make it happen. I need an instrument. Like I mentioned, I’m a music person first. Let’s say I wake up in a motel room with a tune in mind, I’ll record it there on my iPhone so I won’t forget. Later in the car I may work on some lyrics. But, it’s not until I’m able to sit down with an instrument and sing it that it really becomes something. I’ve got to be able to have an instrument and be able to work it out and sing it. The song has to come out physically. I can’t write it mentally in an abstract way. But I can do that anywhere. If I have my ukulele, I can write just about anywhere.
You know, distractions can help you. If you’re stuck, just look around you. Something will spark your imagination. Then I’m off to the races again. I probably have more distractions at home. I’ve got shit to do [laughs]!
NS: Yeah. I can see that being the case too [laughs]. You have family and you’ve got to run errands and whatnot.
KR: Exactly. I love writing at home too though. I’ve got a little studio out back. I love going out there. I could be out there for hours, but somebody is going to be calling me asking, “Where the hell are you [laughs]?”
NS: Yeah. I take it you’re not a JD Salinger. He had a big work studio behind his house that was off-limits to everyone–especially family.
KR: [Laughs]. I have fantasies about being like JD Salinger. That wouldn’t work with my kids.
NS: Yeah [laughs]. They’d say he’d be out there for weeks at a time–and he’d change into like a lab suit or coveralls. Like if you were a painter or something. Strange, but interesting.
KR: That is strange. Sounds great, but just not real practical.
NS: Oh not at all. Course, what was practical about Salinger? Anyways, I was speaking with someone about songwriting a few weeks back and he said something that really struck me. I found it really interesting. He said when you’ve been songwriting for a long time, the most difficult part is trying not to become a caricature of yourself. It’s knowing what’s real and what’s just you imitating yourself. Have you ever had any trouble with anything like that?
KR: Sure. Sometimes you repeat yourself. It’s inevitable. If you’re a prolific writer who has been writing for a long time, you’ll end up doing it. I’ve had songs come to me and thought it was really great, but that it reminded me of something. Then you’re playing it for days trying to figure out if it’s already been written. You obviously don’t want to plagiarise someone else’s idea–which is also easy to do. But then you realize, “Oh, that was something I wrote six months ago.” That was exactly the same melody I used for that. It happens. Hopefully you’ll catch it.
You can become a caricature of yourself. We’ve all seen it happen. Bruce Springsteen comes to mind. Bob Dylan. After so many years, they’re so stylized. They have a certain sound and style, it’s hard for them to get out of it. I think I’ve been pretty good at mixing up a bunch of different genres. I’m a fan of different kinds of music. I think that’s a strength of mine. I’m a varied writer. It can also be a curse commercially though. It’s difficult to sell. It’s easy to sell things that sound the same and fits a category. That’s a common theme for all kinds of music. But that’s how I like it. I’m not going to be Bruce Springsteen [laughs].
NS: I guess it was about a month back now, you were on Otis Gibbs’ podcast Thanks For Giving a Damn. I think that’s a great podcast.
KR: Oh yeah. I think it’s great too.
NS: On of the things I found really interesting was when you were talking about Ray Wylie Hubbard and asking him to play songs of his with you guys. Like “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and “Snake Farm.” I guess why I found it really interesting is because usually when you see two artists play together during a show, it’s a Tom Petty song. It’s a Rolling Stones song–it’s material that’s not a song by either of the two. I guess part of that is being scared that if you ask the other person if you can sing on one of their songs, they’ll be told no or something–a cover is safer territory. What’s your experience with that though? Has anyone ever asked you if they could play a Shinyribs or Gourds song with you?
KR: Yeah. I think it has to do with that. Ray Wylie Hubbard, he’s obviously an icon. Those two songs, those are classic songs that someone may play anyway. If Ray’s there, why not ask him? With Ray, I know what he does and I don’t want to take him out of his comfort zone if I’m going to have him as a guest on stage. I guess I know what his strength’s are and don’t want to embarrass him or put him in a bad situation. I think that has a lot to do with it.
I think sometimes covers are picked when bands are going to be doing an all-star jam type thing because everybody knows it. Everybody’s comfortable with it. Nobody wants to look like a doofus.
I like being challenged personally. For me, I have a philosophy that there’s not a comfort zone. I like being made uncomfortable on stage to see if I can handle it. It’s fun. Evan Felker is great at that [laughs]. He’ll just say the most outlandish things. He’ll come out with ideas on the spot. When he’s talking with you, he’s like “We’re going to do this, right?” I’ll be thinking, “Hold on a minute. Let me get my head around it [laughs].” Let me think if I can do this.
We did this thing where we did their song “Bossier City” and we go into my song from The Gourds, “Shreveport.” They’re right next to each other. That area means a lot to him and he likes to do that little medley. He’ll challenge me and I’ll usually rise to it. But, the one time I challenged him, he backed off of it. He was playing “Choctaw Bingo” on the bus. He knew all the words. I said we should do it at Medicine Stone. He said alright. But when we got there I asked again and he said, “No, I don’t think so [laughs].” I knew it! That’s too many words [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah, that’s a novel.
KR: Yeah it is. I don’t know, maybe he needs to be in a certain state of mind to do it [laughs].