While Russell was going about the business of not having a career, Picket Line Coyotes bassist Jimmy Smith had taken an even sharper left turn. Smith, a native of the Dallas area who had joined the Coyotes shortly after they moved there from Shreveport, moved to the small East Texas town of Nacogdoches, a self-imposed sabbatical designed in part to nurture his increasing interest in songwriting.
“I wanted to try and see where I stood as a songwriter at the time, because I was really inspired by Kevin’s material in the Coyotes,” Smith says. “And I’d been reading a lot of things that pointed me in the direction of solitude. So, I was seeing a girl, and she was going to school out there in Nacogdoches. So when the Coyotes broke up, I thought, this is the perfect opportunity to get outta town and live in a small town and see how the writing would come along.”
He ended up with a few dozen tunes, a considerable well from which he has drawn repeatedly over the last decade. “I spent a lot of my time just realizing these songs, without anybody looking over my shoulder, just a really uninhibited kind of situation,” he says. “But after about a year of flipping burgers and playing open mikes, I had a falling-out with the girlfriend, and was really wanting to get back to town and form a band. And definitely Kevin was first on my list to hook up with when I got back.”
It took some time for that to happen. Russell wasn’t yet convinced he wanted to dive back into a band situation yet, but the Coyotes’ former manager, Phyllis Arp, encouraged him to record some of his new material for a possible solo record. “Phyllis was constantly hounding me to do that, and I didn’t want to, but she got me some recording time at Cedar Creek,” Russell says. “And I did a recording there that’s still sitting in the can. That’s basically how the Gourds started, I think, because that was the first time we’d all played together.”
Smith had brought Claude Bernard, who at the time was playing melodica and sometimes drumming, into the fold. “Jimmy and Claude had a two-man band called Old Government that played one show, I think, at the Hole in the Wall,” Russell remembers. Bernard was the brother of Rob Bernard, an original member of the Coyotes lineup whose departure from the band shortly after the move to Austin had triggered its demise.
A key motivating factor turned out to be the formation of Prescott Curlywolf, a hard-rocking band led by Rob Bernard and Russell’s other old Shreveport pal, Ron Byrd. Russell, Smith, Byrd and Claude Bernard had formed a short-lived band called the Grackles which Russell refers to as a “Gourds prototype,” but Byrd was gravitating toward harder-edged material.
“When the Curlywolf got going, I got kinda envious,” Russell confesses. “It was like, you know, ‘That sucks, those guys have a band, I need to go get a band.’ So it was good sort of friendship competition that got me off my ass to do it again.” Russell, Smith and Claude Bernard eventually recruited Charlie Llewellin to play drums, and the Gourds were born.
Unlike Prescott Curlywolf, or for that matter the Picket Line Coyotes, the Gourds were envisioning a more acoustic direction, one that would draw deeply from traditional Texas roots. This was partly a natural outgrowth of the relocation to Austin, which was rife with musicians who reveled in ravaging the boundaries between rock and country, punk and folk, and so on.
Russell cites the early ’90s Austin heyday of the Bad Livers, as well as Dallas band Killbilly (whose lineup had included Livers bassist Mark Rubin), as turning points. “They made me see that you could use these instruments and you could play any kind of song you wanted,” he says. “And I guess I kind of already knew that, but just to see somebody do it always makes you realize it.
“Those were really inspiring times. There was just an energy about that band, and those times around here. To me it was really exciting to see the Bad Livers doing what they were doing, and so many people coming to see them do it.”
In 1996 the band released Dem’s Good Beeble, a modest but promising debut highlighted by Russell’s sterling country-folk ditty “Clear Night” and Smith’s more soulful “Caledonia”. Stadium Blitzer followed in 1997, sporting new staples such as Smith’s jaunty “LGO” and Russell’s swampy “Magnolia”.