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Over the light pluck of a mandolin, a voice rises, sounding as if it were picked up off of Highway 61 -- somewhere between Bill Monroe's blue Kentucky home and Levon Helm's Arkansas shack. But as evocative as Russell's pipes are, it's what he's singing that's even more remarkable.
"I got a pocketful of rubbers and my homeboys do, too," he whines.
Bassist Jimmy Smith starts to nod along to the rising rhythm of his instrument, as the rest of the band explodes into a burst of noise.
"G's up, ho's down. Can you motherfuckers bounce to that?"
A cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" is a perfect capper to the band's set. Recast as a rollicking bit of mountain music -- high lonesome harmonies and cracker intonations included -- it's the culmination of an hour of songs that traipse the very balance of 20th-century American music. These are not museum pieces, but rather new compositions, written by young men who somehow sound very old, delivered with the zealous fervor of converts and the edge of post-modernists.
Theirs is a disheveled, ramshackle brilliance -- the rarest kind. Standing back, taking it all in, you get the distinct impression that the Gourds, in all their unkempt charm, are what the Replacements would've sounded like had they been reared on corn liquor and the Carter Family.
But this isn't an outfit that plays at being hayseeds. It is both a literate and earthy bunch. On its latest album, Bolsa de Agua, it draws equally on the work of Spanish poets and front-porch pickers.
As the Gourds' unofficial motto puts it, they play "music for the unwashed and well-read."
Birthed in Jimmy Smith's Austin, Texas, home, a little hotbox on the edge of town, the Gourds began as an escape.
By the mid-'90s, Russell and Smith had decided to abandon the amplifiers and angst of their youth for a more timeless muse, enlisting the talents of like-minded rock refugees Claude Bernard and drummer Charlie Llewellin (later replaced by Damnations TX founder Keith Langford) and, eventually, Uncle Tupelo/Wilco utilityman Max Johnston, the group's newest addition.
With the release of 1997's Dem's Good Beeble and 1998's Stadium Blitzer, the Gourds received an army of praise and comparisons to other roots-music alchemists like Doug Sahm and The Band. Ironically, Russell hadn't really listened to much of the latter's catalogue before sitting down with some LPs in an effort to write a couple of Band-sounding numbers -- an exercise that yielded Beeble's lively "Money Honey" and the gorgeous "Gangsta Lean" from 1999's Ghosts of Hallelujah.
"Yeah, it's strange. We had not listened to a whole lot of Doug Sahm at that point, either [the Gourds would go on to collaborate with the late Sahm on his S.D.Q. '98 album]. I don't know why it was that we got those comparisons, considering all that," says Russell, from a hotel room in Vancouver, Canada.
"There's no real explanation. The Faces was one we got, too. A guy in Austin said our stuff sounded like Ooh La La." (As to the last reference, the band certainly makes a case for the year's most Faces-esque moment with Bolsa de Agua's closer, the decidedly dirty blues jam "High Highs & Low Lows.")
"We just come cut from the same kind of cloth and approach it the same way," observes Russell. "I think that validates what we're doing. It's funny, there are always little synchronicities that go on like that. And it makes us know we're on the right path when that happens."
Like the artists they're most often compared to, the members of the Gourds are feel players in the truest sense of the word. Russell -- who, like almost everyone in the band, handles a variety of instruments -- is a distinctive stylist on the mandolin, though he's never been trained on it. Smith's four-string work is similarly imbued with a funky, off-kilter quality, while Langford's percussion and Bernard's ample strokes of color seem almost organic in the way they meld so intuitively. Even the playing of a confirmed musical prodigy like Johnston, with all his vast technical skill, is blissfully natural, never veering off into the pedantic.
Taking these influences and elements together, the Gourds have created an insular world where seemingly ancient musical idioms still live and breathe, each album reaching deeper into a grab bag of Appalachia and Americana. Even their song titles -- "Caledonia," "Meat Off the Bone," "Pine Tar Ramparts" -- sound as if they were ripped from the labels of old 78s; if the Gourds were a tribute act, they'd be Dylan and The Band doing The Basement Tapes.
But if there is one marked difference between the group and its musical antecedents, it's evident in the band's lyrics. Unlike, say, Robbie Robertson's precise historical narratives or Sahm's oversize Texas tales, the Gourds' word play generally falls into the category of the abstract, if not the downright absurd.
"Chicken blood on my pants/Hands are shaky and my pillow is damp/Cigarette, rumble seat/Drive all day, got nothing to eat," drawls Russell on Bolsa's funky opener "El Paso" -- showcasing a startlingly vivid pen and an ability to capture a fleeting sense of life's minutiae.