Usually being a local Music Promoter is a thankless task, especially when you try to introduce new acts to the local populace and Graham Anderson from Newcastle’s Jumping Hot Club has had more than his fair share of disappointments in that area too over the last 25 years; but when he first bought a copy of One Day Our Whispers and subsequently sent an e-mail to Otis Gibbs in Wanamaker, Indiana inviting him to perform at that years Sage Gateshead Americana Festival, he had no idea that he was launching a love affair between a singer and foreign country.
Otis went on to wow the knowledgeable crowd that day; and everyone else who saw him on the following mini tour.
As with all singer-songwriters it’s all too easy to point out there influences and who the reviewer thinks they sound or look like but with Otis Gibbs it becomes increasingly difficult because he is a genuine ‘one off’ as his growing fan base will testify.
I caught up with Otis in Newcastle on the last date of his second UK Tour of 2010 to ask him a couple of quick questions about his latest album Joe Hill’s Ashes. Otis is so amiable we had to cut the meeting short an hour and a bit later as my tape had run out and he was nearly late for the gig and I still hadn’t asked him everything I wanted to.
I began by asking about his regular tours of the UK.
“I’ve been coming to Britain since 2007 when Graham first invited me to perform at the Gateshead Americana Festival; supporting Guy Clark and this must be my 7th or 8th visit since then. I still get goosebumps thinking about that first night when I walked onto the stage in Gateshead. I had no idea what to expect but the crowd just ‘got me’ and took me to their hearts. Graham had also booked a few more dates around the UK for me and every where we went I was greeted like a long lost friend; it was wonderful and I’ll be forever grateful to him.
Since then I’ve also toured with my good friend Billy Bragg who likes to think he’s a tourist guide and has shown me parts of your country that I’d never have found otherwise; plus he has educated me in many new cultures like the ‘pub lunch’. What a great idea! While we travelled between concerts we would always stop at a pub for lunch, which meant drinking beer and eating hearty fayre in the middle of the day. The British still have many things to teach us Americans.
Meeting Billy at a Homeless shelter on the day we were playing a Benefit concert was one of those fortuitous things that happen without planning and can change your life. Billy was and still is a big deal in America and that day we ‘just became friends’. We have so many things in common fro music to literature to TV, we always have something to discuss or argue about. He’s not only had me support him in Britain but in the States too, taking me to places and playing big halls that I could never dream of going to under my own steam. I owe that man a kidney!
Because of his ‘teachings’ on that first UK tour, whenever I come over now I try to learn or discover something new on each visit. On this tour I’ve discovered pickled onions! Where have you guys been hiding those things? They are wonderful; the perfect accompaniment for every meal. (Otis wiped away a tear at the thought). Of course, even with Billy by my side I can make mistakes. On one trip I saw something called Black Pudding on the menu. Now, I like Chocolate Pudding so I thought……well….it must be a very dark type of chocolate pudding, so ordered it. You can only imagine how surprised I was when I was presented with that particular dish. I can only say I’ll ask more questions in future.
Apart from Billy and Graham I’ve made hundreds of friends in Britain and love playing to appreciative audiences on the other side of the world; something I could never have dreamt of doing when I first picked up a guitar in my teens.
But doing what I do; singing my own songs and playing guitar it is a dream come to true anyway. I play between 120 and 150 gigs every year which gives me a good balance with my home life; so the rest of the time is spent with my girlfriend, Amy writing songs and managing my website www.otisgibbs.com which we run ourselves. We do everything from replying to e-mails and mailing out CDs and t-shirts. It’s our own little cottage industry. So if anyone buys something from us you can be assured that I packed it and addressed it myself. The internet has become an essential tool for musicians today; with a website and MySpace I can attract new audiences all over the world at the press of a button. Obviously the downside to the Web is the file-sharing sites where people want music for nothing; but I like to think I’ve embraced that and accept that it is no different from when I made cassettes for friends at school and college. Now I actively tell fans to burn a cd of my music for their friends and hopefully it will bring new people to my gigs that wouldn’t normally have heard my music……and then buy a t-shirt or a genuine CD!
I’ve even got a new Twitter feed that is linked to the site; and for those doubting Thomas’s; that really is me saying those things! I wish I could afford to hire someone to do it for me but I can’t; so I use it as a journal and upload my thoughts and stuff as often as I remember. It’s crazy but a lot of people seem intrigued by ramblings. I also post my photographs on the website too. Some are from my concerts and others are interesting people or places I come across when I’m travelling.
I’ve sold a few and also been approached to create a photo book, but there are only so many hours in the day and making music is my livelihood and it must take priority.
If I wasn’t a musician and needed the internet to communicate with people across the world I guess I wouldn’t really use a computer. But as I said, this is how I earn my living and I’ve learnt to embrace technology to sell my wares.”
I then asked the loaded question about Otis’ singing in public for the first time.
He chuckled at the memory of the well told story but continued.
“When I was very young my parents were both working two jobs to make ends meet and I was placed with an assortment of family, friends and neighbours. At some time I was left with my Uncle Briscoe who probably wasn’t even a real Uncle; and he soon got bored of sitting around the house with a kid so we ended up in the local Honky Tonk Saloon, where he would play Pinetop Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis songs on the piano. Pretty soon I started singing songs I’d heard on the radio and the patrons would drop money in the tip jar for me to sing their favourite songs. I loved the attention and Uncle Briscoe loved the free beer!
Music was a big part of my growing up with my Grandfather playing in a Bluegrass band and my Daddy getting drunk every Saturday night and singing along to his 78 RPM records. It was quite an education.”
By now time was getting on and I had to ask about the new album, Joe Hills Ashes which has been getting very good reviews.
“I’d been touring for nearly a year with Grandpa Walked a Picketline and had a big bunch of songs ready to be recorded, nearly 40 in total, so when I got back home I set up the recording gear in the living room and put everything to music. Eventually Amy and I whittled them down to 12 really strong songs that would make the album and called my friend Thomm Jutz who has a studio and trusted to help me make what I call an ‘honest album’. Thomm knew what I wanted and he has created the sound that I knew the songs needed; stripped down with some imperfections and not that crystal clear sound coming out of Nashville these days. I’m very proud of the finished product, and everyone who I trust says much the same thing about it.
Some of the songs are about me and my thoughts but most are observations of the World around me.
The title song Joe Hills Ashes is about a story that I’d heard many years ago and never found the time to put down on paper about a Union Official who was sent to prison for his beliefs. 12 Men Dead in Sago is about the mining disaster in Sago, Virginia in 2006 where, obviously 12 men died but not enough people really know about the conditions some miners are still working in America and I hope I can let them know through a simple song.
The song that’s already gaining the most notoriety is probably The Town That Killed Kennedy which is what my very good friend John Dee Graham calls Dallas, and I made a mental note some years ago to use it and it seemed the perfect fit for my rant about travelling on Greyhound busses. In the 1950’s and 60’s they opened up the country to a whole generation and were probably quite romantic in their own way; but as I say in the song; it is now only for people who are too broke to fly. Just like every other musician Greyhound’s are a necessary evil and we all have plenty of horror stories about sitting in a cramped position for hours on end and witnessing things being done by one human being to another that we shouldn’t have to witness. Any one of us could have written that song.
My own favourite track is When I was Young. One evening a few friends were sitting around talking and drinking and someone asked the question; ‘what is your favourite ever experience or time in your life?’ Without really thinking about it I said that mine was when I was about 3 or 4 and my Mother holding me in her arms and playing in the yard or the woods without a care in the world. Being a songwriter I just knew there was a song which had to be written as soon as the words came out of my mouth. Now when I sing it in concert a lot of people really connect with it, which is very humbling because when I write my songs I have no real long term intentions for them.”
With that Otis was whisked off to play a barnstorming set to end the UK tour then fly back to Wanamaker, Indiana for a well earned rest.