Otis Gibbs moved from Broad Ripple to East Nashville in October 2007, but that only means that the constantly-touring songwriter has found a new place to hang his Industrial Workers of the World hat for a few months of the year. His true home - in his music at least - is on the road, visiting and communing with working-class Americans, flying into and out of their lives like a punk Walt Whitman (and Gibbs wears an appropriately scraggly Whitmanic beard) and taking his van anywhere that someone will listen to him. More recently, he's been playing in much larger venues in Europe and on the West Coast as an opener for British punk-folk songwriter Billy Bragg. But if he's settled down recently in a place that makes it slightly easier to pursue a music career, he still thinks of himself as a boy from Wanamaker, Ind., even releasing his latest CD, Grampa Walked a Picketline
, on his own Wanamaker Records.
"I view myself right now as no different than some soldier stationed in Iraq, or somebody who just happened to get a job as a truck driver," said Gibbs, who spoke to NUVO during a visit home during the holidays. "You end up relocating somewhere for business reasons but my home is still Indiana."
Gibbs returns home to debut his latest album at a sit-down show at the Vogue Saturday night. It's a step up, in capacity at least, from the Broad Ripple venue where he made his name, the Patio. Strangely, Gibbs found himself looking at the Patio marquee after a show in Glasgow, Scotland, in fall 2008.
"This guy walks up to me and asks me if I would sign a couple photos that he has. And I'm like sure, so he pulls out a photo and it's of the Patio marquee with my name on it. And I ask, 'How in the hell did you have this?' And he's like, 'Well, I was Googling the Internet, searching your name, looking for pictures to print off and I found this one. Is there something special about that place?' And I give him an earful: 'I played there 107 times and I was honored to be asked to be the last person to play there.' And I named all the shows I saw there and how I worked the door for a couple of years in the early '90s."
Gibbs recorded Grandpa
with a cast of Nashville session musicians, including Will Rigby, who drummed for power-pop band the dB's and has worked more recently with Steve Earle and Matthew Sweet, and Al Perkins, who played steel guitar on a host of recordings by Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street
). The producer and engineer also have quite a pedigree: Producer Chris Stamey (who was also in the dB's with Rigby) has worked with Ryan Adams and Yo La Tengo, and engineer Bob Olhsson was an engineer for Motown during its Detroit-era heyday (who brought recording to a halt whenever he shared an anecdote about Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye). Gibbs says his gruff, rough-around-the-edges singing voice and musical philosophy got on the nerves of a studio rat like Stamey.
"I come from the Dylan school of putting songs together," Gibbs explains. "The Dylan school would be, get the best musicians you could possibly find that fit whatever it is that you do, put them in a room, show them the songs and have them play them when they're really fresh; put them right on the spot and beautiful things come from it. I want to be real. If I sing out of key, I want it to be on the record; I want something that when you put it on, to sound like it's actually people, and people are imperfect and make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes make way more beautiful music than something played absolutely perfectly.
"The Buddhists have a term called wabi-sabi, which means that it's the imperfections in things that make them more perfect, and I'm a believer in that," Gibbs continues, moving into philosophical territory. "I just can't imagine listening to Howlin' Wolf if everything were perfect."
While Gibbs is using distributors to make his album available in the U.S. and overseas, he doesn't see the need to sign away his record to a label to "break" an album.
"You know how you drive by and you see a guy selling watermelons or corn or tomatoes out of a trailer on the side of the road," Gibbs explains. "He might have an honor box out there and you just stick whatever you want in the box and he'll trust you. It's a mom and pop business. I try to do everything I do just like that, and people have reacted well to it and it's worked out fine for me."
, which has that live-to-tape sound that Gibbs was aiming for, is populated by the kind of people and types that he meets on the road: a woman, Caroline, who worries that her children will find themselves in the same kind of abusive relationship that she's stuck in; a huckster, Preacher Steve, who preys on girls on the midway while stealing from their credulous parents; and a truck driver who knows the best days are behind him. Plenty of Gibbs' characters seem stuck in a rut, although Gibbs himself is fairly satisfied with the life he leads presently.
"I know very few people who are happy," Gibbs explains. "We really need to find the ability to be happy, and usually it's something that's within us that we could turn on or off but we can't seem to find the switch. I'm a really happy person, believe it or not. I've got a lot to be happy about. So I have friends that give me a hard time: You're the only happy person I know. So if the characters in the songs are stuck like that, I think it's a larger issue in general: We all have our little things that we can't seem to break out of."
In an autobiographical turn that's characteristic of the second half of the album - which moves away from biographical sketches into more explicitly first-person pieces - Gibbs returns to Wanamaker Pond, sketching out the natural world with as much acuity as in his depiction of fellow human animals.
"There was a pond in Wanamaker when I was growing up where I would go fishing," Gibbs says. "It didn't have a name but my family would call it Wanamaker Pond. I don't know why. It was a good fishing spot, and it was fun as a kid. This thing that sticks in my memory is somewhere along the line, someone bought this land that this pond was on and filled it in and built condos over it. It's one of those things that irked me and seems like the epitome of the problem - filling in ponds and putting condos over them."
While Gibbs generally sticks close to things of the earth - working people and their concrete life experiences - he sails into the ether on "Ghost of the Domplatz," a song inspired by a walk through Salzburg, and describes water and music overtaking his sprit.
"Me and a buddy of mine were in Salzburg in the middle of the night, taking a walk through the city when there wasn't anybody there, through Domplatz, which is where the cathedral is," Gibbs says. "It was really dark - which is weird for things not to be lit at night - and we walked into this big public area with the cathedral right in front of us. We sit down and hear this music and we ask, 'Where's that coming from?' We look and there's this guy set up at the entrance of the closed-up cathedral, playing harp and singing really quietly. It was beautiful and it was a perfect night, and we sat there for an hour or so listening to the guy play."
Read Otis's journal and get more info at http://otisgibbs.com/
Hear a stream of Otis's new album below: