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
The resulting CD, called, yep, Joe Hill's Ashes, is probably Gibbs' best work yet, intimate and
"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
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):