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The Gourds feel the spirit of Levon Helm

Barn stormers

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After 18 years on the road, Kevin "Shinyribs" Russell is happy to be home. Musicians in his hometown of Austin, Texas, are the equivalent of military men in other cities: Kids grow up understanding that when daddy goes to work, he'll be gone for a while.

"But I'll choose kids over gigs, any time, any day," exclaims Russell. "Everybody in the band feels the same way. We're all great fathers and husbands. Given the track records of most musicians, it's pretty amazing."

The twangy quintet has managed to keep their lineup virtually intact since 1994, despite raising 12 children among them and never scoring a revenue-generating hit song. Russell shares songwriting duties with bassist Jimmy Smith and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, a veteran of alt-country stalwarts Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo. Drummer Keith Langford and accordion player/guitarist Claude Bernard round out the group.

The Gourds' biggest brush with national fame arrived through their 1998 cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," a recording that caught fire on Napster and college campus file-sharing networks. But, unfortunately for the band, the mp3 file that spread was labeled "Phish," earning the Vermont jam band undue credit and song requests at concerts.

Despite 10 studio albums under their belt, the Gourds haven't managed to secure a single that could put the "Gin and Juice" albatross to bed. Both 1999's Ghosts of Hallelujah and 2004's Blood of the Ram earned lofty critical praise, helping the band solidify a modest national following. Their most recent effort, 2011's Old Mad Joy, may be the recording that earns them a permanent spot in the unofficial alt-country hall-of-fame.

Recorded last spring at the late Levon Helm's studio, the Barn, adjacent to his house in Woodstock, N.Y., the Gourds called on multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell to assume control at the mixer. It was their first-ever hand-off to an outside producer. A veteran of tours with Helm, Bob Dylan, and Phil Lesh, Campbell took the Gourds rambling country energy and refocused it into driving, Rolling Stones-esque concision.

"On [opening track "I Want It So Bad"], Larry said, 'Go ahead and play some fills,'" Russell recalls. "I played a little lick, and he was like, 'No, that's off of Beggar's Banquet.' I played another one, and he said, 'No, that's Goats Head Soup.' I said, 'I guess I can't play nothing but Keith Richards licks on this song.'"

Russell talked to the City Paper immediately after leaving an Austin television studio where he'd just recorded a voiceover on a commercial for the local children's museum. A rookie voice actor, he found himself struggling with requests like "put a little beat between phrases" and "say it with more energy but more matter-of-fact." Russell compares the experience to recording with Campbell at the helm. "The way it's always been with the Gourds, everyone has a veto. We're like the Polish parliament, vetoing ourselves out of existence and canceling each other out," he laughs. "Larry brought a sort of control to the situation. It was liberating, in a submissive way, like the pleasure of enslavement."

The Gourds also had the inspirational presence of Helm to guide them through the process. The legendary drummer of the Band, who died earlier this month, frequently strolled over in his slippers to hear their progress, and his dogs were a constant presence outside the barn. "We tried not to be too much like big fan boys," Russell says. "He would come over and ask us if we needed anything. I found him to be very old-fashioned and charming."

After arriving in Woodstock more prepared than they'd ever been to record, the band found their songs being picked apart to the nth degree. In between recording sessions, Campbell sent individual members off into back rooms to write new choruses, restructure verses, and practice their own parts.

"We went in there with these songs pretty damn arranged, figuring we'd knock 'em out pretty quick. Not the case, my friend," Russell recounts. "We learned a lot about arranging songs from Larry. You'd think by now we'd know all that stuff, but you never stop learning. It's a lifelong thing. Since then, we've been finding old songs and playing them live with new arrangements."

Letting a third-party intervene in their process gave the band a sense of enthusiasm and energy. Whereas communication within the band is often "the passive-aggressive style typical of our generation," as Russell explains, the group found itself able to take criticism from Campbell — the kind of comments that would have earned a "Fuck off!" if offered from a bandmate.

The result, Old Mad Joy, is a collection ranging from classic Gourds-style tunes like "Melchert" to "Peppermint City," which could easily be a cut off one of the Band's post-reunion albums in the '90s.

It's a fitting cornerstone in the career of a group nearing their 20th year, still balancing the same mid-level club circuit and wear-and-tear of the road with the gritty grace they've maintained since the first rowdy fan hollered "Gin and Juice" at the stage, years ago.

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