Kevin Russell might just be one of the best frontmen in America today. We’re a little light on frontmen these days, too (2016 took Prince and David Bowie; 2017 took Chuck Berry and Tom Petty). I hear David Lee Roth gave up his paramedic job a few years back to beef with Eddie on the road, but I missed it. I do, however, cross paths with the inestimable Russell—known musically as Shinyribs—on occasion, and he always brings down the house. You get the feeling that bras are being unhooked as minds are being unhinged. Musically and artistically, that’s a really nice place to be.
In person, Russell appears joyful and sated. Even his stage name derives from a plate of barbecue he once gave a homeless woman. Russell says that food was important in his family, and as a growing boy, he was always enthusiastically encouraged by relatives to eat. “Oh, you eat so good!” they’d say. “Hey! I’m good at this!” Russell thought. “I’m a good eater!”
All that good eatin’ started in East Texas, where Russell spent part of his childhood—first in Beaumont, then in Shreveport, where he finished out his school career and entered into the richly rewarding world of entertainment. Growing up near Cajun country, Russell always felt he had a good handle on Cajun cuisine, but one dish managed to evade his palate and plate throughout his childhood and early adult years. The dish in question is mentioned in the classic Hank Williams song “Jambalaya.”
Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filé gumbo…
Russell was well familiar with the rib-sticking Cajun staple jambalaya, and had even tried filé gumbo a few times, but found filé (a seasoning or thickening agent made from sassafras) not to his liking. Crawfish pie, however, was still a mystery. He’d caught plenty of crawfish growing up, and he’d eaten plenty more, but he’d never experienced a crawfish pie.
“I asked people…I asked my parents, grandparents…people…nobody had ever had it! Nobody knew what it was!” Russell says. “I began to wonder if it was real or if Hank Williams had made it up, you know? So when I got old enough and started cooking, I set about finding recipes in old cookbooks and various places.”
Eventually, Russell found a crawfish pie recipe and tried it. His first attempt was just good enough that he continued to search for other crawfish pie recipes until he landed on the one he uses today, which is a combination of actual recipes and Russell’s own cooking experience.
Pie mystery solved, Russell made the dish many years in a row for the annual New Year’s Eve party he used to throw for friends. Eventually, however, the party became too large. “Complete strangers would come up to me and ask me to take a picture with them,” he says, “and I would think: ‘Wait…no, that’s not what this is about.’” Then, about four years ago, one of Russell’s friends got married on New Year’s Day and Shinyribs played the wedding. It provided an easy excuse to put an end to the big New Year’s party at the Russell house.
Nowadays, New Year’s is more of a low-key affair, but crawfish pie is still a fixture. Russell is completely at home in the kitchen where he’s spent the last couple of decades as family chef for his wife, Robin, and their kids Guthrie (19), Lilly (17) and Harlan (12). “I care more about food than my wife does,” he says. “And she works, and I have time to cook…and I like to cook.”
Today, Russell is standing behind the long counter that separates his spacious kitchen from the living room—a pleasantly open floor plan that is as accommodating as the host, who is, at this moment, cooking in a green suit emblazoned with marijuana leaves that he bought at a store in New Orleans called Soul Train. It’s stage-wear, of course; Russell’s just returned from playing a gig in Cedar Park—a grand opening for a new Whole Foods Market, which is a fitting entrée to an afternoon spent whipping up some delicious crawfish pie. “I love eating these as is,” Russell says, as he plucks some precooked Louisiana crawfish meat from the simmering mirepoix. “They’re fully cooked and yummy…like Cajun meat candy.”
As the pie finishes baking, Russell gets a bit reflective. “I’m not saying I had anything to do with it,” he says, “but in the last few years, crawfish pie has been showing up everywhere. Or maybe I’m just more aware of it.” Then he pauses for a moment to consider and says, “You know…I do get around. Maybe I had something to do with it.”
By Dan Hardick • Photography by Melanie Grizzel