Watch out for hip-hop singing gourds.
By Chris Webb

These home-grown Gourds create a unique Austin-flavored patchwork of sound.

When you think about gourds, you probably think about those gnarly looking seedpods resembling pumpkins that appear to have been stricken with some strange genetic defect. Well, these Gourds, though uniquely shaped gifts of nature, are gourds of a quite different origin. Based in Austin, TX, the Gourds are one of the most unique Americana acts touring today. And their latest tour with the current line-up finds this barnyard blitz of a band heading to Lexington, with a familiar face in tow.

Drawing from almost every branch of America's rich musical family tree, the Gourds proudly maneuver a musical cross-fertilization, crossing over honky-tonk, bluegrass, zydeco, blues, gospel and rock and roll. Brilliant singer/songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith trade off leadership roles and propel the band's sound in distinctive and different modes.

Along with accordion player Claude Bernard and drummer Keith Langford, the Gourds have become poster children for the Americana movement. They've managed to crank out four full-length releases that mine every possible area of roots music from Merle Haggard to the Band, from Neil Young to the Bad Livers and the Replacements. It's music from a sloppy hilltop. Or, as Russell puts it, it's music created "believing in the dangling participle of a dying tradition."

The sound is a bit mysterious, but delivered with an exhilarating dose of funk and power. It's a strange concoction to say the least, but one that somehow seems to fit this band like a pair of broken-in boots, earning them a cultish following.

"We're definitely a feel-oriented band," says Kevin Russell. "That's why you can't really put a style tag on anything or a label on anything. It's like a train-wreck mentality. We know what we like, and I think we try to play up to some ideal of what we like."

With a singularly appealing sound, the Gourds write offbeat songs with an occasional literary flourish. Drawing from a one-of-a-kind well of inspiration, their unofficial motto is "music for the unwashed and well-read." Obscure references to Curtis Mayfield songs, Spanish alcohol, sex, controlled substances and Sufis are quite the norm on any given Gourds album. And they're probably the only band to manage to conjure up a song based on the exquisitely brief and haunting Federico Garcia Lorca poem "Flamenco Cabaret."

Bolsa de Agua, their latest release, is yet another take on their esoteric outlook and musical erudition. The sound once again is chock full of their favorite themes, including insects, the joy of pickling, and fundamentalist Christianity (where Jesus is referred to as "my homey").

Hailed as one of the ten best country CDs of the year by, Bolsa de Agua sounds like a backyard hootenanny.

"We are organic," says Russell. "We come from the vine. In a time when most music is generated either partially or completely by computer programs, I think a lot of us want to hear something that is human, soulful, faulty and full of life."

Helping to produce these organic sounds is a man familiar to the Lexington area. Max Johnston called this area home for quite a while. He's a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who has played with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Freakwater, and his songwriting sister, Michelle Shocked. There's a richness added by Johnston's stringwork that's simply undefinable.

"Until Max joined the band, none of us were particularly instrumentally adept," offers Russell with a laugh. "We needed someone to add a little instrumental spice."

"Since Max joined," he continues, "we have had to start using a set list again in order to manage the myriad instrument changes we make during the typical show. He fills up space where we did not know there was space. He's the real thing."

The Gourds are a band that constantly reinterprets their own material and invents their own distinctive renditions of classic tracks. Past live performances have included lunatic versions of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and rap star Snoop Doggy Dogg's raunchy ghetto anthem "Gin and Juice," the latter turning into a now notorious Napster phenomenon.

Their live exhibitions have gained notoriety as mad takes on a contemporary hoe-down, earning them a well-deserved reputation for foot-stomping fun. Not long ago, they were named "Best Live Act" by the Austin American-Statesman, which is no small achievement in a town chock full of powerhouse acts like Joe Ely and Robert Earle Keene.

The good fortune continues as Sugar Hill Records continues their support with a brand new recording contract and an agreement to re-issue the entire Gourds back catalog. And they're currently working on a new record for early next year.

Exactly what strange topics will be explored on the next record, no one can predict. As Russell explains, "There are certain emotional pools where I fish and they are not on a map."

The Gourds play at Lynagh's on Thursday, July 12, at 9pm, with the North Mississippi All-Stars. Tickets are $12.