By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Kevin Russell has a fertile imagination.
Just ask him how the name Shinyribs originated.
Sometimes it involves giving a homeless woman some ribs. Or maybe as he also says it was just a meaningless moniker given to him by a bunch of derelicts he used to hang out with in northern Louisiana.
Or maybe it’s from his toddler running around declaring “It’s shiny time!”
“It was his mantra,” Russell said.
And about that time Russell was thinking a lot about the creation story involving Adam’s rib and thinking that the rib lives its life in darkness, and yet it’s close to the heart.
Then Russell laughs. He’s laughter punctuated each of these creation stories. He’s a guy who likes to have a good time, and likes to encourage others to have a good time.
That really is what Shinyribs stands for.
The Austin-based octet will be the closer for Saturday night on the Main Stage of the Black Swamp Arts Festival.
Russell said he’s looking forward to the gig. “As soon as I saw the name, I said ‘I want to play the Black Swamp.’”
Russell’s music is rooted in joy. Growing up in Beaumont, he said: “We heard of tons of 45s, everything, The Sylvers, Billy Preston, Glen Campbell, Ray Stevens, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Monkees, Jerry Reed, Waylon. That’s how we listened to music. We listened to everything. We didn’t care what kind of music it was. It was wide open. Me and my sisters would dance to that music. Great time.”
That no-styles barred approach continues to be the Shinyribs mission statement.
From the time Russell was a child, he’d tried to get his friends to form a band, but it wasn’t until he was 14 when his father asked if he wanted to learn to play the guitar that his career as a musician lifted off.
At first he woodshedded behind closed doors. Then he played for his school friends and at talent shows. “I got the bug and kind of kept doing it.”
That involved playing, but especially songwriting.
Russell said his songs, “a flood of songs,” are his diary, his autobiography. Some have found their way into the repertoire of the bands he played with including The Gourds, which for 20 years was a staple of the bustling Austin, Texas music scene. Others he’s played solo, and now with Shinyribs.
Some will never be heard. “I’ll never remember them all.”
That fecundity is in part what led to the breakup of The Gourds. The band had four songwriters vying for a place on the set list. Russell started playing as a single to sing some of this surfeit of material and make a few extra dollars. He performed as Shinyribs. It was just him and his guitar and ukulele.
Soon The Gourds went into hiatus. Russell enlisted keyboard wizard Winfield Cheeks, and then bassist Jeff Brown made it a trio. Gourds drummer Keith Langford wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to go after the band stopped performing. Eventually he joined Russell.
Shinyribs got booked to do a wedding, and the host had a list of requests, and wanted horns. So Russell brought on the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns – Mark Wilson, saxophone and flute, and Daniel “Tiger” Anaya, trumpet.
They played a couple more gigs together. “I can’t not have horns now. To me it’s a dream come true to play with horn players. It was a perfect match of personalities and aesthetic sensibilities.”
Then he landed a chance to play a Valentine’s Day show at the legendary Austin venue, Gruene Hall. He wanted to do a bunch of 1970s vintage love songs, and he needed backup singers. Alice Spencer and Kelley Mickwee became the Shiny Soul Sisters. As with the horns, once he had backup singers, they became entrenched in the act.
That was back in 2014. The economics were questionable. More people to pay.
“But it’s going to be a better product, a better show,” Russell reasoned. “It’s going to be a blast. Maybe it’ll pay for itself. That’s how it’s working out.”
It also meant he had to adjust his approach as a songwriter. “It makes you think totally differently. … It made me learn the art of arranging. Those guys need structure. They’re real musicians, write all that music out and get it down. It made me a lot more disciplined in the way I structure songs. I think I was pretty sloppy. Still am. I have some rough edges. They certainly influenced me, a lot, in good ways.”
Now up on stage in front he’s “a free man.” He can sing and dance, flop down on stage, cavort, don a cape.
“They have the ability to watch me and follow. It’s a great skill as a musician. It makes magical moments possible when everyone is dialed in.”
Russell will also get a conga line going. “It’s a community dance that everybody can be part of.”
“We not a mope-itty-mope band, not a look at me band. We’re the kind of show that has its own unique disposition. It’s just a great feeling. We invite everyone to come along on this fantastic voyage. That’s the way we think about it.”