There was a guy in Wanamaker who had a farm and he had a bunch of chickens,' says Hoosier songwriter Otis Gibbs, talking about his rural hometown.
'He had this little shed in front of his house. There was a refrigerator in there where you could go and buy eggs off him, and there was a cigar box in there. It had the amount of money that everything cost in there. You'd put your money and take your eggs out of the fridge and leave. Completely by the honor. This went on for years.
'The last time I was there was in the '80s and the guy claimed he'd never been ripped off once. Two years ago, I went by the farm. It had gotten plowed over and there's a subdivision there now. The community lacks something when something like that exists. When I think of America, that's the kind of thing I think about.
'As you get older, you appreciate it a lot more. Like with many things, you have to move away and then realize you don't have that anymore and look back and appreciate it for what it was.'
That sense of appreciation for community, of the power of shared experiences and a keen awareness of our common humanity is at the heart of Gibbs' masterful new album, 49th and Melancholy. The disc takes a front-porch view of life, love found and lost and the things we've lost in the rush toward gentrification. 'There were 76 people in my graduating class and now my high school is one of the biggest in the state,' Gibbs says.
Ain't it funny how time goes by
Things changed right before my eyes
They say that Hartman's is closing down
I guess the big boys ran 'em out
There ain't nuthin' to do 'round here tonight
A self-described anarchist with the heart of a dreamer, Gibbs' new music clangs and chimes with the sounds of the Indiana of his youth. You'll find acoustic guitars, mandolins and dobros, but no electric instruments. The stark accompaniment caresses the songs and pays tribute to their reflective mood.
Think Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska brought to the heartland and rewritten by John Mellencamp, but without the self-conscious bleakness of the former or the brassy bombast of the latter.
The music, in fact, is as unpretentious and authentic as the overalls and ball caps Gibbs often wears. It's as graceful and full of political statement as a horse-drawn Amish carriage in rural Indiana.
Even at its most mournful, such as the love-gone-astray 'Don't Have To Take It So Hard,' Gibbs' music is both empathetic and gently fatalistic. 'It happens every day / Feelings fade away,' he sings.
In 'The Great American Monkey Choir,' Gibbs blasts the priorities of our Starbucks society. 'Where the hell did we go wrong?' he asks. Coffee 'used to cost a quarter but now we're paying $3 a cup.' He sings, 'Instead of Uncle Sam, we've got Cinderella in reverse.'
Widely influenced by Townes Van Zandt, old gospel songs and Hank Williams, the songs on 49th and Melancholy are performed so casually that it's easy to miss their depth and passion.
The river will rise and wash the banks all away
The moon will shine Fiery night
The crimson king will drop its leaves
taking flight into the night
revealing me in the gallows tree.
The Gallows Tree'
'Hank Williams wrote three-chord songs and if somebody threw a fourth chord in there, it'd screw everything up,' Gibbs says.
'I believe in trying to get closer to the source in whatever way I can and get things to its bare basics, because usually the things that we throw on after the fact water it down. The first track, 'East Texas Sutra,' is like that. It's reflective of how I felt at the time I wrote it. You could tell I'd been up for two days. I was a little bit weary, but optimistic, and trying to pass time on a road trip.
'I'd had a really good gig in Austin and had to get to Tuscaloosa in a very short amount of time. I quickly realized I wasn't going to get to sleep that night at all, that I'd be driving all night. Sometimes the only way you can pass time being on the road is to just sit back, drive and play games in your mind, whether you're writing songs or playing rhyming games in your head.'
Unlike some songwriters, Gibbs creates his songs before ever touching an instrument. He creates the melodies and words in his head and decides how best to give tangible form to them.
'Sometimes it doesn't need to go any further than an acoustic guitar,' he says. But on 49th and Melancholy, Gibbs calls on old friends to help him fulfill his vision. John Byrne plays dobro and Slim Hadley from the Punkin Holler Boys adds fiddle and mandolin. Susan Morris adds a mournful violin and Rick McDermott plays accordion.
The album's title comes from the time when Gibbs was fronting The Lost Highway, one of the most popular and enduring local bands of the 1990s, and lived at 49th and College, on a block filled with friends and contemporaries.
'I'd lived there for four or five years and I knew all the neighbors, and there was a real sense of community there that I hadn't had since I was a kid, growing up in Wanamaker. It was nice, besides knowing your neighbors, liking all of them.
'In the house next to mine was John Sheets from the Punkin Holler Boys, and a couple doors down was Vess Ruhtenberg, from the Pieces, and they'd practice there, and before that, the United States Three practiced there. Jeff Sample, Tad Armstrong, Brad Wallace all lived around there. You could kind of stand out there in the yard, and it'd be, 'Hey, Otis, what's up?' And it was a nice feeling of community. Not so much hanging out at 4 in the morning, which you'd think the music thing would be, but more hanging out on the porch and saying hey. You'd watch your neighbor's doors, because you actually cared about them, and your neighbors would watch out for you.'
Having traveled all across the nation with the Lost Highway and as a solo artist, Gibbs has a keen perspective on the perceived ebbs and flows of musical tastes. 'As far as the amount of good music that comes out of Central Indiana, I think it's been about the same over the last five or 10 years. At any given moment, there's the same amount. And most of the time, it's the same people producing it. Sometimes they change bands and sometimes they're in more popular bands than they once were,' he says.
'It seems like there are a lot of younger folks, like 22-year-olds, and they're really optimistic and energetic. And that's really nice. But you have to be careful what you expect out of something, because if the expectations get too high when someone comes to check out music, they might be let down and not come back. 'The music stays the same throughout the years and everybody just looks at it differently over time,' Gibbs says.
Then she turns away with a nervous laugh
Says, 'I don't want to take you down the wrong path'
I'm sorry babe I'm already there
And I'm waitin' here for you
With a heart you know is true
How I long to go waltzin' with you tonight.