Kevin Russell is all about names. But that doesn’t mean he always thinks a lot about them. Sometimes they just tumble out of his subconscious, like a good hook or chorus from a song stuck in his head. Other times Russell does puzzle over them, playing around with them in his head until he has got a pair or a string of words that fits together for one reason or another.
That, at least, was what happened with the name of his current Austin, Texas-based band, Shinyribs, which will headline JacksonHoleLive on Sunday night. His nephew had been saying things like “Hey, Uncle Kevin, it’s shinytime!” and for some reason that phrase — “shinytime” — stuck with him at a time when he was both reading a lot of poetry about the story of Adam and Eve and setting up his first computer. So, when coming up with his first email address, he put two and two together, blending the idea of Adam’s rib with his nephew’s nonsensical saying.
He typed out email@example.com and, later, gave his band the same name.
“Names to me are like riffs,” Russell said. “They don’t necessarily always have literal meaning.”
That sentiment has held true throughout Russell’s decade-plus tenure with Shinyribs: It’s been a period that has seen the band evolve from the songwriter’s side project into his main gig after The Gourds, his alt-country act, disbanded in 2013. Since then Russell has released five albums with Shinyribs, picked up an Austin Music Award as the Funk/Blues/Soul Band of the Year and shared an episode of “Austin City Limits” with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Through all of that Russell has continued to throw out names — and lyrics — as they come to him. Two parts of his eight-piece band, the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns (Mark Wilson and Tiger Anaya) and the Shiny Soul Sisters (Kelley Mickwee and Alice Spencer) have names of their own. And while Wilson and Anaya’s horn section came to the band with their name (the result of a misunderstanding about a hybrid strain of marijuana, a cross between T1 and Trainwreck), Russell gave Mickwee and Spencer their name one night onstage.
“I named them off the cuff,” Russell said. “I was like, ‘They need a name. All the great back-up singers have names.’
“And I didn’t think about. It was the first thing that popped out of my head.”
That sort of freewheeling approach to language carries over into Russell’s songwriting. When he played with The Gourds he got a lot of flak from critics who couldn’t seem to understand what his records were about, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Referring to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who all wrote from the stream of consciousness, Russell said his work didn’t “reinvent the wheel.” He called himself as an “impressionistic writer.”
“I think of words as visual,” he said. “They have visual properties to me. A lot of times I feel like I’m painting with words, so maybe, you know, if you read them literally, if you’re looking for a narrative, it’s not going to be there.
“But if you look at it visually … that’s kind of where I come from.”
And though the literal meanings of Russell’s words can fade into the background of the self-proclaimed swamp funk the songwriter lays down in the studio with the help of the Shiny Soul Sisters and the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns, there are moments of raw, unencumbered poetry that stick out immediately when you hear them.
One, a lyric on “Shores of Galilee” from Shinyribs’ 2010 album, “Well After Awhile,” is particularly telling of a theme that pops up over and over again in Russell’s work.
“Does a satellite ever know it’s suffering?” he sings.
Sure, Russell is anthropomorphizing a satellite but that line really isn’t about a satellite. It’s a metaphor of sorts — some words that Shibyribs’ frontman fit together with a somewhat ambiguous meaning — but the core of the lyric shines through when sung in Russell’s brass.
Russell is lonely.
“I am both crazy and lonely,” he said, referring to “Crazy Lonely,” a song on Shinyribs’ 2019 record, “Fog and Bling.” “Sometimes you just feel lonely no matter how much adulation and attention you get.”
Russell interpreted that lyric (He said he sometimes stumps himself with the meanings of the words he writes) as a musing on loneliness, a metaphor for a person who has split from a relationship watching a former partner go on without them in the world. But Russell stopped himself from saying what the lyric was definitively about. That wasn’t the point. The point, as he saw it, was to convey a feeling and leave it up to the listener — and, in some cases, an older version of himself — to decipher the meaning for themselves.
“To me that’s what poetry is,” Russell said. “Using the economy of words and images metaphorically to sort of express feelings or thoughts or ideas that are not easily expressed through words.”
And though Russell might be lonely, a satellite in orbit, perhaps, he’s not a recluse. And though he might be crazy, he “knows” his crazy and knows the importance of connecting with people, whether on the street or at a live show. In concert Russell isn’t afraid to get down off the stage and dance with the crowd.
“I love Elvis, and that’s the lesson I took from Elvis — he was like, ‘Don’t be a superstar,’” Russell said. “I just want to reach out to people and connect with them.
“I’m a normal person, you know. We can have fun together.” ￼