Otis Gibbs: proudly independent and not to be labelled
Otis Gibbs makes no secret of his liberal views, sings about strikes and union leaders and likes to get his audiences singing along with a song that made him a hit at anti-war rallies. But label him as a “political” singer and he’ll resist.
“I think it says a lot about our world that we live in today that we have to have tags like that. No one did call the Carter Family a political band when they were singing about the depression, or Alphonse Mucha wouldn’t have been a political painter when he did “The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia”, or Steinbeck, but for some reason we have this sort of ghetto that we like to put musicians in.
“Some people are more than happy to be there, but I personally only know about myself. When I think of politics I think of dirty deals done in dark rooms by people with access that’s imposed upon the rest of us, and that doesn’t really seem much like art to me.”
It’s true that Gibbs’ records – his most recent, Joe Hill’s Ashes, came out last May – contain many songs on a wide variety of themes, but Gibbs also suspects that his small-town, middle America upbringing has made him uncomfortable about imposing his views on people.
“We’re raised with all of this shame, we’re taught not to draw attention to ourselves, which is ridiculous, but you have that little voice in the back of your head: well I don’t want to beat people up about what I think, or whatever. But I do feel comfortable with it being in my art.”
Nevertheless, it was an avowedly political musician, Billy Bragg, who gave Gibbs his big break in the UK. The pair met three years ago at an event at a homeless shelter in Austin during the South by Southwest festival.
“You go do a show for the right reason, just because you ought to go do that show ... I had no idea that it was going to be some wonderful friendship that I would strike up that would help me in wonderful ways,” Gibbs admits.
Bragg invited Gibbs to play some US dates with him, and then invited him to Britain – “I got to play a month’s worth of shows with Billy in these nice large venues. A lot of the people really enjoyed what I did, and I kept coming back. That was two years ago and I’ve come back maybe six times since then.”
He appreciates the polite British audiences who really seem to want to hear what he has to say.
“There’s a long history of England in particular being friendly to American roots artists when America was over it, like Muddy Waters and Townes Van Zandt. I used to joke I’d be happy to come over and play to two people and a dog, and I could be booed, and if that happened it would still be okay because music brought me to the other side of the world. I’m lucky, I come over and there’s people who have no reason to like what I do at all who really enjoy it.”
Gibbs is a native of the town of Wanamaker, Indiana – he releases his music on a label he calls the Wanamaker Recording Company – and lived in Indiana until three years ago, when he relocated to Nashville with his partner, Amy Lashley “just to try something different”. But he acknowledges that Indiana is in his heart.
“I’m extremely proud – pride’s a terrible word but I really am a part of Indiana. It’s been really good to me over the years. When I was just playing dive bars, there was always an audience, I could relate to people, and if we’re talking about the way I view the world, it’s really important to me that people know that there are people like me in Indiana, that live there.
“Kurt Vonnegut grew up in my old neighbourhood, Steve McQueen and James Dean and just a lot of interesting people who are from Indiana that just aren’t what you think of, because it’s a very conservative area in many ways, but there were always a lot of people like me that didn’t always get their voices heard. I like to remind people where I’m from.”
In Nashville, Gibbs has settled in community of East Nashville, home to many of the city’s roots artists. It’s a part of the city that’s still affordable (“I could do without the gunshots; that part gets a little old!”) for artists who aren’t part of the Nashville mainstream, money-making scene.
In the city where all the big country labels are based, “you can cut the delusion with a knife, it’s really thick in the air, the amount of people that want to be stars, it’s really hard to be around,” Gibbs says.
“But that’s not all of it, there’s actually a lot of people that like music and like art. It’s not a commodity to them, and those people I enjoy being around.”
As well as touring, Gibbs hopes to make a new album this year. He and Lashley operate as a cottage industry, working from their home, packing up CDs ordered on the website themselves and sending them out directly.
“We’re just really homemade and no pretensions about it. It’s been good to us. We’re no different from a local restaurant down the street – you walk in, you know the name of the person working there, you walk in and you’re happy it’s in your neighbourhood.
“I think people respond well to that. It seems the less pretentious about it we are, the more people seem to enjoy it. Just a family that’s able to make music.”
Otis Gibbs on Backroads