If an average music consumer knows anything about the Austin, Texas, band the Gourds, it’s that they’re the guys who recorded a twangy acoustic cover of Snoop Dogg’s laid-back SoCal gangsta anthem in the late 1990s. Never mind that the Gourds have been together for 17 years, that they have released nine albums of wry, intelligent country-rock in that time, or that they are now near-legends in the venerable music scene in their hometown—mention the Gourds, and odds are “Gin and Juice” will be the first thing anybody remembers. The association is impossible to ignore, even for journalists who like to think they’re above such obvious story hooks.
It turns out, though, that the members of the band don’t mind talking about the song, or playing it, even after more than a decade. The band has been able to turn its brief moment of early Internet celebrity into a long and respected career that actually pays the bills. At least people recognize the band’s name, even if it is for a novelty cover song. That’s the way the Gourds like to think about it.
“It’s just not that big of a drag,” says drummer Keith Langford. “Someone the other day told me, you know, it’s refreshing to hear somebody that plays their hit song. I kind of like that. There’s always a couple of people who, that’s really what they want to hear, and I don’t like for those people to go away unhappy.”
The band’s unusual and almost entirely acoustic lineup—guitar, bass, and drums, but also accordion, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle, banjo, and harmonica—is part of what made “Gin and Juice” noteworthy in the first place. The Gourds’ recorded version of the song managed to sound a little like pre-World War II hot jazz and a little like Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show; in concert, as a number of YouTube clips attest, the song can be modified in countless ways.
“We really play with it unbelievably,” Langford says. “That’s become our thing, to let the guys go off on all kinds of tangents. It’s different every night, which makes it fun for everybody.”
But there is considerably more to the Gourds than “Gin and Juice.” The band’s combination of impeccable musicianship, loose arrangements, and traditional influences have earned the Gourds frequent comparison to the Band over the years, a connection made even more explicit on the upcoming Old Mad Joy, the band’s 10th album, scheduled for release in September on Vanguard Records. The new disc was produced by Larry Campbell, who plays guitar for Bob Dylan and in former Band drummer Levon Helm’s solo group, and was recorded at Helm’s studio in a barn in Woodstock, N.Y.
“He is, of course, a hero of mine,” Langford says of Helm. “He was very accommodating and nice and generous. It’s nice when you meet somebody you like and they’re not an asshole.”
On top of that, the recording process was much different in Woodstock. The Gourds had never had an outside producer—“The first two or three records we had somebody doing a producer-ish role, but this was full-blown,” Langford says—and Campbell pushed them in new directions. “We’re old dogs—it’s hard to teach us new tricks. But we found it very inspiring and fun. I think it sounds unreal good. I really hear the sound of the barn in it. We took our road sound guy with us, and he was saying that’s the whole deal with that room, you can hear it. And they were complete pros, and had the same style and tastes that we do, so it was a good marriage for me, for making good organic sounds.”
It’s about 1,800 miles from Austin to Woodstock—a long trip, but not as long as Langford’s trip with the Gourds. He joined the band after its second album, Stadium Blitzer, in 1998, after already having been a fan.
“I thought the Gourds was the best band in the world,” he says. “I always wanted to be in a band like the Gourds that was acoustic-driven, and singing being a big part of it. In Austin at the time, nobody had a banjo in their band. Now everybody’s got a banjo in their band, or an accordion. It wasn’t a career aspiration, it’s just musically it was the best fit for what I wanted to do. And really, we’ve been very lucky to have had some longevity, and we can all live the dream of being Austin musicians who can actually make a living.”