Otis Gibbs is a man in search of an honest experience. Some people refer to him as a folk artist, but that is a simplistic way to describe a man who has planted over 7,000 trees, slept in hobo jungles, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains, been strip-searched by dirty cops in Detroit, and has an FBI file. Otis has played everywhere from labor rallies in Wisconsin, to anti-war protests in Texas, Austria and the Czech Republic, Feed & Seed Stores in the Midwestern U.S. and in countless, theaters, festivals, bars and living rooms. Much of his work concentrates on the world that is ignored by pop culture. Sometimes forgotten, obsolete or simply marginalized, it is a world that doesn’t fit into a twenty-second sound bite or a White House talking point. Otis has spent the last fifteen years traveling across America and abroad documenting this world, and has a story to share about each stop along the way.
Otis grew up in the rural town of Wanamaker, Indiana. He first stepped on stage at the age of four, when he sang Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” at a neighborhood honky tonk. While his parents worked countless hours trying to make ends meet, Otis was often in his uncle’s care. Not accustomed to parenthood, the uncle was sometimes bored, so the two would frequent bars, where Otis sang for tip money (which meant more booze for his uncle). Otis was hooked, and would often ask if they could go back and sing some more songs. The answer, “Only if you promise to never tell your parents.”
Otis started working when he was in high school. He stacked concrete blocks, flipped burgers, drove an ice cream truck, pumped gas, and did countless other crummy jobs. After discovering writers like Edward Abbey, Henry Miller and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he started questioning what he was doing with his life. He was tired of working jobs that didn’t stimulate, or interest him in the least. So, in his own words, he decided to just “drop out.” Over the next four years, Gibbs earned and lived off less than $3,000 a year and had never been happier. He got rid of his car and shared apartments with artists, musicians and radicals (often living with 5 to 10 people). He also took advantage of the free time and wrote hundreds of songs.
The next few years were spent touring and releasing four indie records. The most notable being “49th and Melancholy,” (a stripped-down acoustic record, that was recorded to two-track reel-to-reel in a friend’s laundry room). There was also “Once I Dreamed of Christmas,” a collection of songs he’d written “for people who don’t like Christmas.”
In 2004, his critically acclaimed, “One Day Our Whispers” was released. It was an unpopular time to speak truth to power, but the album’s optimism and anti-war undertones resonated deeply with people who felt uncomfortable with the direction America was heading. Though songs like “I Wanna Change It,” “Thirty-three” and “Ours is the Time” have been described as protest songs, Otis prefers to call them “love songs for young radicals.” “The Peoples Day” was later included in a Wall Street Journal list compiled by Billy Bragg of the “Top Five Songs with Something to Say.” This placed Gibbs in the company of Bob Dylan, The Clash, Sam Cooke, and Chuck Berry.
In 2009, Gibbs released “Grandpa Walked a Picketline.” He spent most of the year touring to support the record, including 4 tours of the UK, Ireland and Holland. The album spent 6 weeks in the top 5 on the Americana Radio Chart (USA), peeking at number 4. It reached number 2 on the Euro Americana Chart.
If Gibbs’ current album, “Joe Hill’s Ashes,” leaves you with one lingering thought, it might be that the great challenge of adulthood, is keeping your idealism once you’ve lost your innocence.
“Where Only The Graves Are Real” describes life after your closest friends have died, moved away, or simply moved on. The song suggests that the only tangible part of the rock and roll myth are the graves. It issues a warning, that you might wake up one day and find yourself surrounded by the delusional, vacuous and beautiful people that inhabit the music world and wonder how in the hell you ended up there.
“When I Was Young” was inspired by a conversation Otis had with friends. Each person was trying to remember the most perfect moment in their life. A moment when they felt completely safe and secure. Otis described his earliest memories of sitting in his mother’s arms with his ear pressed against her chest. He could remember hearing her voice resonating from inside her body as she spoke to him. Otis claims that the song popped into his head and pretty much wrote itself.
“The Town That Killed Kennedy” is an indictment of Greyhound as a means of transportation. This song was written after endless bad experiences while traveling with the bus line. As the lyrics suggest:
No one chooses to ride in a Greyhound
The only reason you’re here is you’re too broke to fly
There’s a devil named poverty who has brought us together
Now the devil is taking us for a ride.
When asked about making this record Otis said, “I’m silly enough to believe that I’m the world’s foremost authority on what an Otis Gibbs record should sound like, so I trusted my instincts and ran with it. There are moments when artists find that they’ve followed their muse off the side of a cliff and they need someone to hand them a parachute. Thomm Jutz was the perfect person for the job. After recording a lot of the album in my home, I contacted Thomm about finishing the rest of the record in his studio. Working with Thomm was like a breath of fresh air. We worked fast and had a good time doing it. We brought in some Nashville-based musicians who elevated the record in every way. From start to finish, the record was pressed and in my hands in less than three months.”
Otis currently resides in East Nashville, Tennessee with his long time girlfriend, Amy Lashley, their dog and two cats.