Meet the Grackles: The secret history of Kevin Russell’s early-’90s band
You may know Kevin Russell as the leader of Shinyribs, one of Austin’s biggest bands of the past few years (both literally and figuratively). If you’re a longtime fan of his singing and songwriting, you no doubt were familiar with the Gourds, who became one of the best bands in Americana music around the turn of the century. And if you really go way back with Russell, you might have heard the Picket Line Coyotes, the band he formed with friends in Shreveport, La., in the 1980s.
But do you know about the Grackles?
For a brief time in the early 1990s, Russell had a group that was named after our city’s omnipresent, cantankerous yet lovable birds. His primary partner in Grackle crime was Ron Byrd — yes, Byrd — who’s now a physician with patients including many local musicians (Russell among them).
The two met in the 1980s when the Picket Line Coyotes occasionally played parties at Baylor University for an unofficial fraternity; Byrd was a member. It was during one of those visits to Waco that Russell first encountered a grackle.
“There were these crazy birds, making this crazy noise,” Russell recalls. “They were so loud, and I was fascinated by them.” Byrd was the one who told Russell what they were. “I was like, ‘What the heck is that? That’s a crazy damn bird.’”
Fast-forward a few years to 1993: Both Russell and Byrd were living in Austin, and the Picket Line Coyotes had split up. Russell wasn’t sure he wanted to keep playing music, and Byrd was in residency here, on track to become a doctor. They started picking a little on the side. What to call this nascent ensemble? The Grackles, naturally.
Russell says they gigged almost exclusively at Chicago House, a downtown haven for acoustic music in the ’90s that’s now home to the bar Tellers. They recorded a handful of songs that never got released, including one called “Turn Me Like a Choir” that Russell recently posted to Shinyribs’ SoundCloud page.
Pretty soon the lineup expanded to include bassist Jimmy Smith and drummer Claude Bernard. This was a key development, as it turned out. When Byrd and Russell parted ways, Byrd ended up joining the rock group Prescott Curlywolf with Rob Bernard (former Picket Line Coyotes guitarist and Claude’s brother) and drummer Keith Langford.
That trio’s early success spurred Russell to form his own new band with Smith and Claude Bernard, who switched from drums to accordion. “That’s when the Gourds started to form, I guess, around that diabolical instrument — the grackle of folk instruments, you might say, the accordion,” Russell says with laugh.
Langford eventually ended up in the Gourds, replacing original drummer Charlie Llewellin around the time the group added former Uncle Tupelo multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston to become a quintet. And Russell married Langford’s sister. If it all sounds rather close-knit between band members and family members, “that’s just the way we were,” Russell says. “It was kind of an incestuous world back then.”
Because the Grackles had been primarily a bond between Russell and Byrd, the new group settled on the Gourds rather than keeping the old name. By the time Shinyribs took root a decade ago, Russell had become aware of another band calling itself Grackle (singular, no “the”), so he didn’t consider reviving it.
Still, he remains fond of the moniker — and the species.
“They’re so musical, like in a really horrible way,” he says. “I love the sounds they make, and the way they look. But they’re obnoxious and arrogant, too. Kind of human, almost.”