If there’s one thing Austin-based The Gourds have in spades, it’s a sense of character-driven voice that saturates every colorful, often nonsensical lyric. In the song “Spanky,” for instance, guitarist and frontman Kevin Russell sings: “Why you could serve a turkey on that man’s belt buckle/Well even if he whooped me I wouldn’t give a fuckle.” And an introduction on their website embodies the band’s personality: “The long night of cucurbitaceae begins here in a box the size of my Uncle’s belly. Oh, if you must know that these gourds are those with strings and skins and squeezeboxes and songs to boot, then it must be told that they are the heroes of this non-story. And a one and a two and a…”
With such a strong sense of character themselves, it’s no surprise that The Gourds find their main attraction to Missoula not so much in the often-praised mountain peaks and friendly community atmosphere, but rather in a true Missoula character—that being James Roof (better known simply as J.R.), who handles booking at The Other Side.
“Our relationship with Missoula really has everything to do with our friendship with J.R.,” says Russell. “He’s a good buddy and, well, I don’t know how well you know J.R., but he’s half full of shit.”
That trait has apparently made J.R. an inspiration to The Gourds’ songwriting, especially on their last release, Blood of the Ram. The album kicks off with a Zydeco-infused tune, dedicated to Missoula, called “Lower 48,” which namechecks the states in the manner of Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” “Lower 48” is one of many catchphrases J.R. uses and, according to Russell, it’s one of the mannerisms that’s endeared him to The Gourds.
“He’ll be like, ‘Glacier has the greatest population of griz in the lower 48,’” Russell says with a loud chuckle. “I had [wanted] to write a song, one of those name-every-place kind of songs which is what that is, but in the end it sort of ties together with some of the J.R.-isms. It’s kind of a tribute to him.”
The Gourds—including Claude Bernard, Jimmy Smith, Keith Langford and Max Johnston, all on various stringed and percussion instruments—are storytellers who chronicle both strange-but-true nonfictions and Paul Bunyanesque tall tales. Their lyrical philosophy is somewhat in line with that of revered Montana poet Richard Hugo, who spent much of his book The Triggering Town talking about the importance and truthfulness of the music of language over its literal meaning. In “Arapaho,” for instance, Russell sings: “Hey bar tender bring me the ticket chopper/Single malt black whiskey and a virgin in the garden/I sail on a boat and my jewel box lid is broken/Deception and betrayal are ripe for the bargain.” In other words, even without a linear narrative, there’s still a story to be told.
As for the future, The Gourds are keeping themselves occupied with the current tour, and with a Red Cross benefit in November and a Katrina relief benefit shortly after that. The hurricane relief effort is an issue close to their hearts as southerners, but it has become ever more personal since Hurricane Rita hurtled through Beaumont, Texas, the town where Russell grew up.
“My aunts and uncles…they’re not gonna leave for anything,” says Russell. “You know, if there was an asteroid headed toward them they would not leave.”
In addition to tours and benefits, The Gourds are currently releasing a three-disc album of live shows spanning several years, and in January they’ll release a new album with the working title Heavy Ornamentals. It’s a recording that differs from The Gourds’ last seven albums in that it utilizes electric instruments more and that it was self-recorded in the band members’ homes rather than professionally.
“We just took the reins ourselves instead of going to a studio and shelling out a lot of money and working on the clock,” Russell explains. “We decided to try one ourselves and it came out pretty cool, I think.”
And although The Gourds are drawn to Missoula by the friendship, entertainment and promotional wherewithal they say J.R. provides, Russell adds that Missoula itself is a place they love to play. He even wrote a song called “Missoula,” and though it has yet to be recorded, he just might play it at the show.
“You can just write a song about anything, really,” Russell says. “That’s the fun part, is not knowing how it’s gonna pop out and how it’s gonna develop once you start it.”
For a band that’s written about everything from preachers to Sufis to the National Football League, that’s a statement that rings tried and true.
The Gourds play The Other Side Friday, Sept. 30, at 10 PM. Tickets are available in advance at Rainbow’s End for $15.