The Gourds must be crazy: From left, Claude Bernard, Jimmy Smith, Keith Langford, Kevin Russell and Max Johnston.
John Carrico

Eclectic Avenue

The Gourds' Kevin Russell is singing in a rich, backwoods holler.

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.


The Gourds

Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

Scheduled to perform on Monday, February 26, with the Nitpickers. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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.

Meanwhile, Smith is the band's Dali, painting surreal images across a canvas of accordion, banjo and organ -- as he does on Ghosts' ragged-but-right standout "Up On High" ("Up on high where the wild foam vanilla baths flow/You know who chose the bones over the entrails").

"We've always written differently than that kind of mainstream linear song. The more you listen to music and start paying attention, you realize there's basically like five different songs that have been written over and over again. And you want to kind of destroy that," notes Russell. "And you don't want to write anything that's too obvious or too confessional. We've tried to learn a lot of that from other writers we've respected, in the literary field as well. We're just trying to write things that are going to go over people's heads or knock their heads open, really just something to fuck with people."

Bolsa features a telling mix of material, from the gospel-tinged anthem "Hallelujah Shine" to the aching 1950s-style balladry of "Waterbag," the old-timey "Turn My Head Around" and the odd sex metaphor of "Pickles." Elsewhere, the group flashes a bit of the highbrow, turning a Federico García Lorca poem into a rambling acoustic workout called "Flamenco Cabaret."

"We generally like to stick as much on the [albums] as we can," says Russell of the band's mash of styles and songs. "Sometimes, you get this feeling that you're supposed to make short records. A lot of people are real anal about it and some of 'em have criticized us 'cause our records are too long. And we're like, 'You know, it's all on this big ol' CD and people can listen to whatever they want, we might as well put it all on there.'"

For Bolsa de Agua, the group continued its long-standing relationship with Germany's Munich Records. Munich has served as the Gourds' only label home during its five-album career, save for an ill-fated domestic pact with Watermelon/Sire. That label, which went bankrupt in 1999, distributed Stadium Blitzer and its follow-up EP Gogitchyershinebox, albums for which the band has not yet seen any monies.

"The way American record deals are, they just screw you. It's a total rip-off. So what we do is just go through Europe, who gives us a fair deal and they license it to America," notes Russell. This time out, Munich licensed Bolsa to Sugar Hill, the venerable North Carolina-based folk and bluegrass imprint.

"Basically, we have a handshake deal with Munich. With a smaller roots label -- like Sugar Hill or Munich -- it's a family kind of joint. And they really care about the music, those are important things," says Russell, who's vehement about his desire to stay out of the corporate fold.

"The major label thing is a walking dinosaur. It's not gonna be around much longer. For us, I don't really think it's there even if we wanted it. They're not interested in a band like us 'cause we're not gonna go to a fat farm and have the fat sucked out of us and wear their clothes, so there's no way they'd take a chance on us," he chuckles. "Unless, of course, our grassroots thing explodes, then we'll talk to them, maybe."

The Gourds' "grassroots thing" is a story in itself -- one that recently earned the group a profile in the Wall Street Journal. Using the Grateful Dead (and, to a lesser extent, Phish) as a business model, the Gourds have built their success from the ground up. Releasing albums at a regular pace, touring constantly, opening its live sets to tapers and spreading the word via the Internet, the band has built a solid foundation of genuine music fans.

"We're really starting to see the fruits of that approach. But it was hard for a lot of years. Those early years is where a lot of bands like to have that cushy tour support and in the process pretty much sign away their mechanical royalties," says Russell. "We didn't want to do that. So it was lean for a while there. But with word of mouth and the 'Net, things have really taken off.

"Like on the first date of this tour in Missoula. It's like a little town of 50,000 people in the middle of Montana and there was 400 people in the place just rocking their ass off; we were dumfounded by that."

Something that may dumfound Gourds audiences is the group's proclivity for wild cover songs. A visit to the band's unofficial Web site is an eye-opener, as it offers a trove of live MP3s featuring genre-bending deconstructions of Snoop Dogg (including a breathtaking medley of "Gin and Juice," the Stones' "Miss You" and Lou Reed's "Heroin") as well as everything from the Beatles and Blind Blake to Big Star and Buck Owens.

"One of my favorite things is to take a song we love and do it our own way," says Russell of the band's well-known penchant for interpreting others' material. "I think more bands should try and do that.

"I mean, we like to be all over the map, and most of the people who're gonna come see us, a lot of them will be real music lovers -- people who are into all kinds of things. That's the way we are," says Russell. "Why not apply that to what we do? We can play anything we want, pretty much. Our thing is, if it works, if it sounds good, we'll play it."


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