Otis Gibbs told me an incredible story during last year's Tonic Ball. It goes like this.
Gibbs was recording songs at the time and was thinking of calling the incubating project "Joe Hill's Ashes."
"Who's Joe Hill?" I asked.
I came to find out that Joe Hill was an immigrant worker and union organizer active in the early 20th century. He was also the first protest folk singer, a guy who paved the way for everybody from Guthrie to Dylan to Rage Against the Machine. Accused of a double murder in 1914 in Utah, he was executed by firing squad after an unjust and speedy trial. His last wishes were for his ashes to be scattered throughout the world.
A packet of ashes happened to survive until the 1980's. And so the question arose as to what to do with them. Abbie Hoffman famously suggested that the modern torch-carriers of the protest folk movement should, well, eat them. Long story short, Gibbs was in England on a tour when he had — and took — the opportunity to eat Joe Hill's Ashes.
Hopefully Gibbs will fill in the blanks and re-tell that story when he plays The Vogue this Saturday, May 4 for his big homecoming/CD release show.
The resulting CD, called, yep, Joe Hill's Ashes, is probably Gibbs' best work yet, intimate and knock-down powerful.
"I wanted to try recording this record in my living room," Gibbs said. "So I holed up for two weeks straight, doing nothing but making a record. I jumped in head-first and recorded songs for twelve hours a day."
"There are a lot of beautiful things involved in recording at home, but there are also some challenges. Street noise, cars going by, our cats and the birds outside the window were all part of the background noise. A lot of these things ended up on the record and I wouldn't have it any other way. I honestly believe that I'm the world's foremost authority on what an Otis Gibbs record should sound like. I have no problems deciding which direction my music should go."
The album's second song, "Where Only The Graves Are Real," is a scathing rip on the entertainment industry. With this song in mind, I asked if Gibbs' involvement in industry schmooze-fests has made it harder for him to retain his independent spirit.
"Your question makes a lot of assumptions, Flounder." He was clearly a bit miffed. "You and I spent most of the nineties hanging out at the Patio and rocking to the Zero Boys, Gravelbed and the Vulgar Boatmen. Less than one hundred yards away there was a disgusting ass frat party taking place at any number of bars, but we had no trouble avoiding it, right?"
"When I was Young" is a poignant tale of remembering what it felt like to be a young boy held by mother. A flat-out contender for best Mother's Day song of all time, it paints an idyllic picture of his Indiana roots. Despite living in Nashville, Tenn. for the last two and a half years and finding a greater measure of attention and fame in Europe, Indiana is never far from Gibbs' mind.
"I miss my old neighborhood and my friends," Gibbs explains. "I have roots and I'm permanently intertwined in the community. I have a lot of guilt that I deal with almost every day about leaving Indiana. I sometimes find myself waking up alone in hotels in England or Ireland thinking that I'm in my old house in Broad Ripple."
After a pause, "I tell stories on stage about my life in Indiana. I see myself as an ambassador of sorts. I see it as my responsibility to let people know that there are people like me in a place called Indiana."
"I played a festival last year in Ireland and there were three artists with Indiana roots in the lineup," Gibbs continued. "I did interviews with the BBC and with newspapers in Dublin for this festival and one of the main topics that the interviewers kept bringing up was the fact that we were all from Indiana. A few months earlier, two Hoosier musicians managed to scratch to the top of the "Euro-Americana Radio Chart". Tim Grimm sat at number one and I was at number two for a month. Meanwhile, people in Indy were going about their day-to-day lives and having no idea that people on the other side of the world were being influenced and entertained by Hoosier artists."
Joe Hill's Ashes is currently charting at second place on the Euro Americana chart, behind John Hiatt's new album. The album features impassioned and appealing songwriting from Gibbs, tight work by some of Nashville's best session players and gorgeous backing vocals by Gibbs' long-time partner Amy Lashley.
The Vogue gig will be a seated, intimate affair, the perfect setting in which to experience the new songs. Not long after, Gibbs will return to England for the summer, his overseas itinerary including a spot on the Liverpool Summer Pops concert series alongside Rod Stewart and Status Quo.
More on Gibbs at http://www.otisgibbs.com/.
Full album stream of Joe Hill's Ashes (available for download at http://otisgibbs.bandcamp.com/album/joe-hills-ashes):