Not too many years ago, Austin singer-songwriter Kevin Russell, the man behind the entity known as Shinyribs, had a revelation. He was discussing schoolteachers with his kids, and mentioned his first two were Miss Martin and Miss Gibson. Thatâ€™s when he realized his destiny had been shaped decades ago, like the headstocks of his favorite guitars.
In fact, Miss Gibsonâ€™s impact reached even further. The Beaumont, Texas, native remembers the moment his 7-year-old ears heard her pronouncement, â€œYou are a writer.â€ He knew even then that he wanted to apply that skill to songs; she gave him the confidence to pursue that dream. Seven years later, he started strumming and composing, and now, on Feb. 24, 2017, Shinyribs the man and Shinyribs the eight-person band are about to dose fans with the exuberant swamp-pop soul-funk of their fourth release, I Got Your Medicine. Tracked at Houstonâ€™s legendary SugarHill Recording Studios, it carries a New Orleans R&B vibe â€” with extra gris-gris added by Russellâ€™s co-producer, Jimbo Mathus.
Russellâ€™s band years started during high school, in Shreveport, La. A move to Dallas, another to Austin, and formation of his last band, the Gourds, followed. In 2007, to cover payments on his new family vehicle, Russell started doing a monthly side gig at a Houston club, using the name bestowed upon him by a transient woman heâ€™d once presented with a plate of ribs. In 2010, he released his Shinyribs debut, Well After Awhile. Gulf Coast Museum came in 2013.
By then, the 19-year-old Gourds had recorded with Larry Campbell at Levon Helmâ€™s Woodstock studio, toured internationally and played countless shows. It was time to move on. With 2015â€™s Okra Candy, Shinyribs became a band, with drummer/percussionist Keith Langford, keyboardist Winfield Cheek and bassist Jeff Brown. With I Got Your Medicine itâ€™s a party â€” attended by the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns and the Shiny Soul Sisters.
It might be a rent party at a trailer park, but hey, fun is fun, and thatâ€™s what Shinyribs are all about. Russell loves nothing more than challenging peopleâ€™s sensibilities while making them laugh, which he can do merely by stepping onstage. Heâ€™s got a balding dome, longish white goatee, Santa-sized belly and heâ€™s usually wearing a wild suit picked up at a place called Soul Train Fashions (in New Orleans, natch). Heâ€™s a jovial presence, all right (a regular â€œhippie redneck Buddha,â€ said the Dallas Observer). When he straps on a guitar, mandolin or six-string ukulele and strums â€œPoor Peopleâ€™s Store,â€ â€œTake Me Lake Charlesâ€ or â€œBolshevik Sugarcane,â€ while doing his best â€œLetâ€™s Get It Onâ€ Marvin Gaye, he can turn even the most uptight audience into shakers.
â€œI just do what comes natural and what turns me on,â€ says Russell. â€œHumor is really important to me in music. I love Coasters and Tony Joe White songs; you donâ€™t know if itâ€™s a joke or if theyâ€™re serious.â€
And Russell is a master at balancing tongue-in-cheek with heart â€™nâ€™ soul. The title tune is a case in point: itâ€™s drawn from his experience helping a down-and-out husband run errands for his anxiety-ridden wife.
The lyric Thereâ€™s a mall dying inside you and you never bought that dream references Russellâ€™s love of empty old malls, which he finds â€œkind of depressing and kind of beautiful at the same time.â€ Buoyance comes from Tiger Anayaâ€™s and Mark Wilsonâ€™s doo-wop/soul-flavored horns and backing vocals by Sally Allen and Alice Spencer.
They put a gospel groove on â€œDonâ€™t Leave It a Lie,â€ and throw several retro influences into Ted Hawkinsâ€™ â€œI Gave Up All I Had.â€ Russell, who produced the 2015 compilation Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, puts a particular hurt on that one.
â€œIâ€™ve learned a lot about singing and how to write songs just from listening to his music,â€ he says. But inspiration comes from every direction. The honky-tonk-meets-Chuck Berry rocker â€œTrouble, Trouble,â€ for example, recalls a phrase he used to hear on a Dallas soul station.
â€œTub Gut Stomp and Red-eyed Soulâ€ gets its title from Russellâ€™s definition of his musical style; an energetic Nawâ€™lins romper, itâ€™s filled with â€œfreak-out juiceâ€ and â€œJimbo stew.â€
Speaking of Jimbo, Russell says their alliance was another confluence of strange events. It started years ago, when he heard Mathusâ€™ Confederate Buddha album.
â€œI knew I had to meet this guy, so I got his number, called him up and said, â€˜This is Kevin Russell. You may or may not know who I am, but I think you have my record collection and I want it back.â€™â€
Theyâ€™ve been friends ever since. One night, Mathus was supposed to open for Shinyribs in Beaumont after an appearance in Houston. The Mississippi resident hadnâ€™t counted on Houstonâ€™s Friday afternoon gridlock, however. He missed the gig but showed up anyway.
â€œThat was the first time he heard us with the horns,â€ Russell says. â€œHe grabbed me after that show and said, â€˜We gotta make a record! This is too good!â€
Maybe his ears were captivated by the syncopated sexiness of â€œA Certain Girl,â€ their Allen Toussaint cover, or their gorgeous rendering of the Toussaint McCall/Patrick Robinson ballad, â€œNothing Takes the Place of You.â€ Or maybe it was the bluesy â€œI Knew It All Along,â€ Russellâ€™s very-successful attempt to write â€œjust a real good done-me-wrong soul song,â€ or â€œHands on Your Hips,â€ his take on â€œa good old jealousy
Gospel rave-up â€œThe Cross Is Bossâ€ puts a clever, slightly satirical finish on the affair; Russell says the song â€” like the album â€” is meant as a reminder that not every issue has to be taken so seriously.
â€œA lot of people are so tightly wound, they canâ€™t let themselves go,â€ he says. â€œI feel like I can demonstrate to them that you can shake your hips, roll around on the floor, scream and shout, and itâ€™s OK: people will still accept you. Itâ€™s just music; relax and have some fun.â€