KEVIN RUSSELL’S LONGTIME FANS can probably picture this ’70s scene in their minds: a pint-sized version of the witty singer-songwriter, grooving with his sisters during dance parties at their home in Beaumont.
“We’d watch Bandstand and we’d watch Soul Train, and I’d jam out to that stuff and try to dance like the people on there,” he says. “My mom just thought it was hilarious. It kept her entertained.”
This begs a follow-up question: How well did Russell — formerly of the beloved Austin band the Gourds and now the front man of Shinyribs — do with the often-fantastic moves of the Soul Train dance line?
“I got pretty good, you know,” he says. “Some of the moves I do now … I used to do them then.”
His blend of country, soul and humor comes into focus as he describes his childhood. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on pop and R&B records, he says. His uncle introduced him to Willie, Waylon and outlaw country. His brother brought the Beatles and ELO. And a friend down the street — perpetually equipped with a boom box — blasted “the coolest tunes” like AC/DC and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.
In a slightly more random reference, Russell mentions his appreciation for Rerun, the beret-wearing jokester with the jumpy dance moves, played by Fred Berry on the ’70s sitcom What’s Happening. “I thought he was the coolest guy,” Russell says between laughs. “I wanted to dance like him.”
Russell and the Gourds enjoyed a successful run with their brand of rootsy rock and Americana, which came to an end in 2013. The odd part is that after nearly 20 years of recording and touring, the band may be best known for a cover song. Their rollicking take on Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”— rap slang, expletives and all — was a fan favorite. But Russell says it became “an albatross” for some band members.
“Those guys were hesitant to do anything like that,” he says. “A lot of them didn’t like that and didn’t like what it became. I was like, ‘Man, that’s good, it’s no big deal.’ I’m a singer, and I like to interpret songs. That’s part of what I do.”
Russell had started Shinyribs, an Austin-based eight-piece, as a side project, releasing the well-received Well After Awhile in 2009 and Gulf Coast Museum in 2013. Two additional albums, Okra Candy (2015) and I Got Your Medicine!, have been released since, the latter named Album of the Year at the Austin Music Awards. The band allows him to be the “musical director,” he says, and he has more room to experiment.
So in concert, the crowd might find Russell, known for his outrageous outfits and antics, playing the ukulele or guitar while crooning such unlikely covers as TLC’s “Waterfalls,” T-Pain’s “Buy U a Drank” or Ginuwine’s racy hit, “Pony” — outfitted, perhaps, in his lime-green sherbet leisure suit or flashing LED cloak (which he donned for a soulful performance of “East Texas Rust” on Austin City Limits). The 50-year-old boasts the indelible spirit and nudge-nudge, wink-wink playful quality of a man forever young, who points to the likes of Tony Joe White and the Coasters for his Shinyribs-tickling, mind-expanding, “Is he for real?” sense of humor.
“People pick up on that strangeness of this big, old white guy playing Ginuwine on a ukulele,” says Russell, sporting his trademark beard and unapologetic gut. “It’s just a bizarre thing, and you don’t know what to make of it. But then you’re like, ‘This is awesome. I don’t care — this is great.’ And that’s what Shinyribs is all about. It’s being confused, and then being inspired.”
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