Kevin Russell was nearing age 40, and given the upheavals in his career, should have been facing the clichéd mid-life crisis. Instead, he gave himself permission to be himself.
He left The Gourds in 2013, a band he’d co-founded and played with for nearly 20 years, to focus on Shinyribs, a project that gave him a chance to be, as he puts it, a “benevolent dictator” instead of a member of a “sloppy democracy.” The Gourds’ democratic dymnamic had worn him down for so long that he compared it to a “five-way sexless gay marriage.” Some might call that a crisis, but to Russell, it was a chance at creative freedom.
“The odds were against me for sure,” Russell said in a phone interview with BandWagon, “but I felt like I had to do it. The Gourds were great, but it just went on for too long. I thought to myself that I had one more chance here. It was a now-or-never kind of feeling.”
The result, which he will display at the Moxi Theater in Greeley on September 15 and at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs on September 18, still leaves him a bit flabbergasted. He’s now the frontman and main songwriter for a nine-piece behemoth of a band that is, by far, the most successful musical project he’s taken part in. At 55, he’s more financially secure, happier and artistically challenged than he’s ever been.
“Never did I imagine,” he said, “what it’s become today.”
He never thought he’d have a horn section, for instance, but hired some nice guys he called the “Tijuana Train Wreck” to play a wedding with him, and he loved the sound. Then he hired a couple backup singers for a Valentine’s Day gig, and that sounded great too. Then he found an incredible pedal steel guitar player, and suddenly, he had a wild and organic but amazing band that looks, and acts, like a group formed by your cool old uncle and all his friends.
“I wasn’t making any money at the time,” Russell said, “and I kept thinking, ‘Can I afford this?’ It was a gamble. But the product paid for itself. It was so great. We are now an instant party – wherever we go.”
The eclectic mix gives him a chance to toss together Texas blues, New Orleans funk, horn-driven Memphis soul, some country, border music, roots rock and big-band swing. It’s weird and yet, Russell said, it appeals to everyone.
Russell was always a prolific songwriter, but just before he left The Gourds, he became much better, thanks to Larry Campbell, a multi-instrumentalist who played in Bob Dylan’s band and produced the last Gourds album.
“I learned so much,” Russell said. “He had us write new parts and arranged all the songs up. After that I realized I was a lazy songwriter.”
It was, in fact, that time working with Campbell which may have empowered Russell to go out on his own after years of kicking it around. He’s since educated himself on new studio techniques and uses more technology that allows him to explore more musical ideas.
These days, there’s no doubt he’s the songwriter for Shinyribs, though he calls for help from the horns on writing their parts and doesn’t mind taking suggestions.
“Everyone has their opinions in the band,” he said with a laugh.
Russell’s joy and freedom of exploration isn’t limited to the music. He always used to do a conga line with The Gourds, a tradition he continues with Shinyribs, but now he dances a lot more. Some of it is even choreographed with the backup singers. He wears outrageous suits and will swap out his guitar for a ukulele.
He does wonder what the audience must think of this old guy with a white beard and a pot belly dancing and having a lot of fun.
“I do care what people think,” Russell said. “On stage, I just channel something. People ask me how I do that, and I just say: I gave myself permission to do it.”
BandWagon presents Shinyribs on Thursday, September 15 at The Moxi Theater in Greeley and Sunday, September 18 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs. Tickets at BandWagonPresents.com – more on Shinyribs at shinyribs.org