The Gourds are not only THE great Austin band, but also one of the great American bands, of their or any other generation. The fact that they have not been included in this pantheon by the mainstream music press is a glaring omission. I would like to theorize why this omission is so, and to argue for why it should be corrected.
First I would like to state why I find it so easy to dub them the greatest, and most representative, band to emerge from Austin. The Austin music scene is an amalgamation of different music styles, but the essential character of Austin music is music that is at least partially rooted in the deep currents of American traditional music. That is not to say that the Austin of today doesn’t feature punk, electronic, indie rock, and any other kind of music that is out there. However, when one thinks of the tradition of Austin, one most likely thinks of the combination of 60’s rock combined with country and other traditional American musical forms. The Gourds have explored this combination probably more thoroughly and more consistently than anyone. They have done this across ten studio albums and several soundtracks. All of these records are valid artistic statements that have their own moments to recommend them. One may prefer one period over another, but I don’t think one can be honest and say that any of these records lack merits.
I think it should be noted that the Gourds made records that were documents, in the same way that Bob Dylan made records as documents. Although there are few experimental sonic moments on Gourds records, Dyin’ Diamond comes to mind, most of their records represent what the band actually sounded like playing together at any bend in the road. This is the opposite of the Beatles approach during their Sergeant Pepper period, where the studio was used as an instrument in and of itself. A contemporary that used this more sonically experimental approach, and gained a good deal of success from it, would be Wilco and their Yankee Foxtrot Hotel album. This is not to say that one approach is better than the other. Bands that are able to document their actual live sound without using any tricks or modern production techniques, which are always in danger of dating, will always sound timeless. However, I think in this age of technology this has always put the Gourds at a commercial disadvantage.
I think the Gourds have always been at a disadvantage commercially as well because they are so fearless in their exploration of various styles. We live in the age of the brand, and it is hard to brand the Gourds music as anything other than Gourdian. I think one of the things that makes them such a unique and great band, is that despite exploring an endless number of styles, their personality always comes through. You would never mistake a Gourds song, whether it be country, folk, or rock, as anyone else.
The Gourds also deal lyrically with a great deal of surrealism. Surrealism is a great tradition in American art of all kind. One thinks immediately of the directors David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, and the painters that formed the American surrealist movement of the 20th century. However, even though this has been a thread in American culture, many Americans seem threatened by surrealism in a way that our European counterparts do not. I believe that this is another reason that many people, that should otherwise like the Gourds, have been a bit confounded when approaching their music.
Some of what I am saying might make the Gourds sound like an elitist band, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact what has made their ride so interesting is the combination of high brow and low brow art. For all the intelligence in this band, live they are a band that can make the spirit move you. I have never seen a Gourds show where people weren’t dancing and just plain out having fun. While there is indeed a current of art and intelligence in their work, there is another current always running along side it that is a celebration of life that is neither sentimental nor condescending. I have seen some serious partying going on at Gourds’ shows.
In my mind there are basically three great American rock bands from the Gourds generation. They are Wilco, Marah, and The Gourds. There are plenty of other great bands from this period, but I am using the distinction of bands that came directly out of the rock tradition of the 60’s, that again built on the tradition of American roots music. Many of the other bands that one would argue that are great, that came from this period, have their roots in things that I would argue aren’t completely traditionally American. Marah, one of my favorite bands of all time, has done several things internally that have held them back from being commercially successful. Wilco has faired the best of the three in terms of commercial prospects. However, I would say that the Gourds have actually been more consistent than Wilco throughout their career and are easily as deserving of the kind of critical acclaim that that band has seen. Again, there are not many bands that can put out ten studio albums and all have them be valid as works of art.
I would also argue that the Gourds are not only one of the great American bands of Austin and their generation, but period. The fact that they are not seen this way is partially due to both the terrible decline in music journalism and the sorry state of the modern music business. Great bands that do not play by the rules have always been aided by those that know how to communicate what makes them great. People in general are slow to warm to anything they cannot easily understand. Sometime, if you have the time read the old music reviews in Rolling Stone and compare them to the new ones. This is only one example, and Rolling Stone is by and large a legacy publication, but there was a point when they valued legitimate music criticism. If you are not at a bands live show, and the Gourds are a band that has always excelled live, how do you find out about a band? You either have to hear about them through word of mouth, see them through some kind of media, or read about them in some publication. We are inundated with information in this day and age. This makes word of mouth slower to travel. The Gourds came up in that unique period when old media was dying and new media was being born. I don’t believe the Gourds, in their refusal to be anyone but themselves, fit neatly into the new highly image conscious media world. It was simply an issue of ill timing and fortune on that score. As we have already discussed the print media, regarding music journalism, has declined to a disgraceful level. Most people that are called music journalists nowadays couldn’t get a job at high school papers in years past.
I truly believe if there is any justice in the future, and the future is something we can never see, that the Gourds at some point will be recognized as one of the great American bands. Except for maybe Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Elvis, the catalogue of Motown, and a small handful of other American artists that truly changed the way that we listen to music, I believe that the Gourds discography stacks up against all other contenders.
If you don’t know who the Gourds are you have a tremendous amount of material to enjoy exploring. We now enjoy catching up on an entire TV series over the course of a weekend or week; this should be no different with music. Dive in and explore. You don’t have to take my word for it, as Morrissey once sang, “Why don’t you find out for yourself?”
It should be noted that I have worked with the Gourds in several capacities. I play bass in Shinyribs with Kevin Russell and Keith Langford of the Gourds. Kevin, Keith, and Jimmy played on my band No Show Ponies first album, The End of Feel Good Music. I have also toured and done merchandise for the Gourds. However, I am not blowing any smoke here. Life is too short for bullshit. I mean every word of the above article.
I should also note that I am writing this in honor of what will be the Gourds last public show for awhile. They are playin in Austin at Threadgill’s this Sunday.