Friday May 3, 2019
Any Baby Can's 40th Anniversary Benefit Concert featuring Shinyribs with Charley Crockett
Once you’ve seen Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell on-stage and heard his band’s music, it’s impossible to forget. Known for his outrageous outfits and antics, he’s a regular fashion icon, liable to turn up in anything from his lime-green sherbet leisure suit to a flashing LED cloak, which he donned for a soulful performance of “East Texas Rust” on the award-winning PBS show Austin City Limits.
Born and raised in Beaumont, East Texas, Russell’s been variously dubbed (mostly by himself), the Baryshnikov of the Big Thicket, the Pavarotti of the Pineywoods, the Shakespeare of Swamp Pop, or the Shiniest Man in Showbidniz. One of the pioneers of Americana as a member of The Gourds, Russell took his musical inspiration from the fertile Ark-La-Tex turf. In the immortal words of the title track to their most recent album, “I Got Your Medicine,” Shinyribs have the cure to whatever ails you, moving that ass until you’re a helpless member of the Kevin Russell-led “all-in” conga line which snakes through the audience at the close of every show.
“It’s the universal dance anyone can do,” he says. “Nobody feels self-conscious or out of place. It’s a great way to get everybody involved. You can’t really top that.”
As Austin royalty, Shinyribs are one of the music world’s best-kept secrets, but not for long. The eightpiece outfit was recently named Best Austin Band for 2017, while I Got Your Medicine was tapped as Album of the Year at the Chronicle’s prestigious Austin Music Awards. Balding with a scraggly beard and an unapologetic gut, the 50-year-old Russell boasts the indelible spirit and nudge-nudge, winkwink 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, butt-shaking “is he for real” sense of humor.
The crack eight-piece band features, aside from Russell, keyboardist Winfield Cheek, bassist Jeff Brown and drummer Keith Langford, along with the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns (trumpet player Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson on sax and flute) and the Shiny Soul Sisters (Alice Spencer and Kelley Mickwee), as well as occasional on-stage appearances by the Riblets, Shinyribs’ very own dance troupe.
About his status as a local hero, Russell says, “The competition is pretty serious here in Austin. I don’t know how big a fish I am, but I certainly flop around a lot.”
Kevin Russell might not take himself too seriously, but he is dead-on serious about the eclectic blend of music he favors, combining Texas blues, New Orleans R&B funk, horn-driven Memphis soul, country twang, border music, big band swing, roots-rock, Tin Pan Alley and even punk into a raucous mix that includes such out-of-the-blue cover nods as David Bowie’s “Golden Years” (a posthumous tribute with an unlikely “On Broadway” groove) or the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (interpolated into a live version of “Poor People’s Store,” his populist “jingle” for an imaginary bargain basement outlet).
Russell’s Shinyribs have recorded four albums since starting out as his “solo” side project, starting with 2010’s Well After Awhile, followed by Gulf Coast Museum (2013), Okra Candy (2015) and last year’s award-winning I Got Your Medicine. The band’s impending release came to fruition with demos Kevin started in his backyard studio, with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin providing some of the horn arrangements.
Russell’s parents were both music lovers, his father teaching him his first guitar chords, “then pretty much letting me go my own way.” As a teenager, he went through a hard-core punk phase, attracted to west coast acts like Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Gun Club, followed by an alternative/college fascination with R.E.M., the dBs and the Replacements.
“I was raised in an era where there were no rules, where marketing and specialization hadn’t yet become the status quo,” he says of his vast musical canvas. “I think of radio as playing all styles of music; everything is up for grabs. I never wanted to play just one kind of music. Honestly, I don’t know how to do anything else. I love mashing things together you wouldn’t expect, like a donut taco.
“My thing is to love and respect everyone, to accept everyone for who they are. You can be whoever you want to be at a Shinyribs show… that’s what I’m trying to convey with my music and the performance.”
The past flows through Russell’s aesthetic sensibility to become something, well, Shiny and new.
“It’s cool to see the old stuff still works. I’ve taken a great deal from the best showmen I’ve seen over the years. I don’t want people to hero-worship me like a celebrity. This isn’t about me… it’s about us. Making everybody feel special.” His goal remains to create music that makes us feel better about ourselves… even the sad songs.
“I feel good when I play and sing this music. I want everybody to experience that same pleasure. I just want to keep serving the music I love, and continue to evolve my art.”
ABOUT CHARLEY CROCKETT
"I love timeless songs," says Charley Crockett. "I've always believed that the more timeless songs you learn how to play, the more timeless songs you can write."
Crockett's unique approach to American roots music — a mix of Texas blues, classic country and Cajun soul — has earned him an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Long before he toured the country in a bus once owned by Willie Nelson, though, he cut his teeth as a street performer, busking on the corners of New Orleans and the subway cars of New York City. It was a hands-on musical education. Surrounded by the chaotic noise of city life, Crockett learned how to project. He learned how to hold a crowd's attention. Most importantly, he learned a long list of classic songs from the jug bands, brass players and fellow songwriters with whom he shared the street. Filled with vivid storytelling, raw honesty and rich southern heritage, those classic tunes would eventually inspire his own original music.
He pays tribute to those busking days with Lil G.L.'s Blue Bonanza, an album stocked with Crockett's own interpretations of old-school country songs and half-forgotten blues gems. Featuring 15 songs originally performed by George Jones, Ernest Tubb, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Charles Brown, Lavelle White, Ray Charles, and others, Blue Bonanza shines a light on a modern musician with traditional roots. It's also the second release in his ongoing Lil G.L. series, following 2017's Lil G.L.'s Honky Tonk Jubilee.
"The roots of the street are deep in this album," says Crockett, who co-produced Blue Bonanza during two days of inspired, live-in-the-studio recording. He tracked the songs with his road band, capturing the chemistry generated by a year of heavy touring. Together, Crockett and company decorated these songs with upright bass, electric guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and Wurlitzer, combining acoustic and amplified instruments into the same retro-minded mix. "There's a lot of accordion and trumpet here, too," the frontman adds, "and that comes from me playing with brass bands in New Orleans. You've got all that brass and soul in the New Orleans sound, but you've also got that street sound. I heard a lot of jug bands doing old-school music down there, and I'm just trying to keep that old sound together."
It was blues music that ultimately brought Crockett back home to Texas. Raised in rural San Benito by a single mother, he left the Rio Grande at a young age and embarked upon a life worthy of his ancestor, American folk hero (and fellow wanderer) Davy Crockett. Charley worked on farms in California. He lived on the streets of Paris. He wandered his way through North Africa. Returning to Texas after a decade of street gigs and subway performances, he found a state bursting with new musical opportunities. He also found a kindred spirit in Jay Moeller, a legendary Texas musician steeped in similarly bluesy influences. It was Moeller who began calling Crockett "Lil GL," a nickname modeled after GL Crockett — an obscure 20th century musician who, like the young Charley, built his reputation upon a mix of classic country twang and raw, bluesy bang.
A reinterpretation of GL Crockett's 1965 R&B hit, "It's a Man Down There," serves as one of Blue Bonanza's many highlights. Also filling the tracklist is a rockabilly cover of the Van Brothers' "Servant of Love," a country-soul version of Danny O'Keefe's "Good Time Charley's Got the Blues," and a reverent, slow-burning take on Lavelle White's "Lead Me On." Much of the album's source material is taken from mid-century artists who made their mark in Texas and Louisiana, two states whose influence can be heard in Crockett's phrasing, southern drawl, and regional punch.
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them I play Texas and Louisiana music," he says proudly. "People call me a stylistic chameleon, and I like that. This is soul music. It's blues. It's country. It's just music."
Don't mistake Charley Crockett for a covers-only musician. He's a prolific and fiercely creative songwriter, with Blue Bonanza marking his fifth release since 2015 and second in 2018 alone, following the critically acclaimed Lonesome As A Shadow released earlier this year. Few contemporary artists can match that output. Rolling Stone said Lonesome As A Shadow was one of the “25 Best Country and Americana albums of 2018 so far” back in June (alongside artists like Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves and John Prine), and NPR World Café praised Charley for his “hard-earned version of optimism that's nothing short of inspiring.”
Crockett is also constantly touring, playing 200-plus shows in 2018 in the U.S., UK and Europe (and over 400 since releasing In The Night in 2016), and has toured in the past with Turnpike Troubadours, JD McPherson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson, Shooter Jennings and many others. Crockett has played for over 150,000 people this year, and continues to build a loyal fan base at home and abroad.
The Lil G.L. series allows Crockett to interpret some of the songs that have shaped his own approach to writing, aligning with a number of classic crooners along the way. Years ago, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles and George Jones all found a similar balance, mixing their own material with covers of songs by other artists.
"I think that the best artists, whether they're working in country music or hip-hop, are always bringing the tradition back to the front," he says. "I believe America's greatest era of songwriters already happened, and the people who are pushing it forward are drawing heavily from the older stuff."
On Lil G.L.'s Blue Bonanza, old sounds new again.