It’s the last day of 2016, and thousands of Austinites have gathered at Auditorium Shores to ring in 2017 in the heart of downtown for the city’s official New Year’s Eve party. The seven-hour affair features a smorgasbord of local acts, from soulful singers to indie rockers to country troubadours to blues rockers to Latin jazz masters and beyond. But when it comes time for the headliner to take the stage just before midnight, there’s one obvious choice: Shinyribs.
What began almost a decade ago as a way for former Gourds co-founder Kevin Russell to make a little extra money by opening that long-running Austin Americana band’s shows across the country with a solo set has gradually grown into the broadest-umbrella showband of Texas. On “I Got Your Medicine,” released independently last week, Shinyribs harnesses the energy of that momentum in the studio for the first time.
“I was always chasing our live show with each record,” Russell says, soaking in the quiet afternoon atmosphere at Donn’s Depot on a mid-February day. “And this record, I finally feel like the band is defined and solidified. This record was made with all the parts in mind, and I felt like I’ve finally caught up to where I’m at.”
Hot on the heels of selling out Gruene Hall the day the new album came out last week, Shinyribs will play an Austin record-release party Friday at Antone’s. They’ll also appear on Tuesday as part of KUT’s 50-year anniversary salute to DJ John Aielli at Hogg Auditorium, before heading into a busy South by Southwest stretch that includes gigs at Threadgill’s, the Townsend, the Dogwood, Lucy’s and Yard Dog. In April, they’ll be at the Old Settler’s Music Festival, where they’ve become an annual fixture.
Fully expanded from those prototype solo shows to an eight-piece juggernaut, Russell built upon Shinyribs’ core quartet over the past four years, first adding the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns and then bringing aboard the Shiny Soul Sisters. The similarly eclectic Gourds were closer to country and folk at the root, but the central touchstone for Shinyribs is soul, steeped deeply in the swampy roots of Russell’s native Beaumont.
On “I Got Your Medicine,” the fourth Shinyribs record, Russell tips his hat directly to dearly departed influences on a couple of tunes. Brass blasters Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson help drive Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had” to a fever pitch, while Allen Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl” proves a perfect call-and-response number for singers Alice Spencer and Sally Allen. On the original songs, those sounds have seeped underneath Russell’s skin, from the the “Jimbo stew” of co-producer Jimbo Mathus on “Tub Gut Somp & Red-Eyed Soul” to the prototypical swamp-pop groove of “Hands on Your Hips” to the not-as-holy-as-it-seems gospel of “The Cross Is Boss.”
Digging deep into the roots of classic Gulf Coast sounds has been an enlightening journey that grew from a monthly residency at a Houston nightclub, where he began playing under the Shinyribs name near the end of the Gourds’ two-decade run. “I was doing a lot of different styles,” he said. “It was an outlet for anything I wanted to try, and it was just all over the map.”
He began recruiting a grab-bag of ace local musicians to accompany him at those early gigs, from producer-engineer/percussionist Mike Stewart to Heybale drummer Tom Lewis to Carolyn Wonderland bassist Bobby Perkins. Eventually, keyboardist Winfield Cheek and bassist Jeff Brown settled into permanent roles, and Gourds drummer Keith Langford followed Russell in the transition to Shinyribs.
A couple of Houston music historians helped educate him about the roots of so-called swamp pop, which mixes in elements of southern Louisiana and southeast Texas styles such as rhythm & blues, country & western, Cajun traditionalism and old-school rock ‘n’ roll.
“People had started asking me about swamp pop when I started playing around Houston, and honestly, I didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says with a sheepish laugh. “An old lady came to the show in Tomball one night and she was like, ‘I just love what you do, we used to go dancing to bands like you.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Bands like me have existed?’”
Yet these influences had always been just within the natural reach of a born entertainer who grew up in Beaumont before starting to play music in Shreveport. With the Picket Line Coyotes in the 1980s, Russell was more tuned into what he calls “angry young man” music that fed off that era’s underground bands such as Husker Du and the Replacements. “But there were older musicians I used to hang out with who were always trying to turn me on to this stuff,” he remembers now.
“I was like, ‘You old guys, I don’t know about your music, it sounds a little cheesy, man.’” He laughs at the willful ignorance of his younger self. Recently, some of those old friends came to a Shinyribs show in New Orleans. “I was so proud,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, I know what you guys were trying to tell me now. I get it!’ And they were like, ‘Oh, we know you get it!’”
Russell punctuates the memory with a trademark cherubic chuckle that befits his Santa-like long beard and full-belly stature, before turning reverential again. “I wanted to just thank them for that, because they put that in my head. It’s cool how things happen that way; sometimes it just takes a little while for it to sink in.”
Like the bands of swamp pop’s 1950s-’60s heyday, Shinyribs is working as a regional rather than a national band, by design. They tour Texas heavily and play shows in the border states, but rarely venture further than Colorado except for special festival or private-concert engagements. “We’re making plenty of money here in this region, so I just don’t see any reason to change it,” Russell says.
Initially, he wondered if expanding from a quartet to an eight-piece might challenge the economic viability of the band. “When I added the horns, I was like, well, we’re all going to have to take a little less money,” he says. But he thought it was worth the gamble that the horns might draw more people out, allowing him to charge more for the shows. It worked.
“And the same with the girls,” he says of bringing Spencer and Allen aboard full-time last year. “It’s going to be such a great show that the money’s going to go up, and we’re going to sell more tickets. And that’s what happened. It sells more, and so it pays for itself.”