Otis Gibbs – Lost and found
“We did everything we could to remain obscure, without realizing it,” says Otis Gibbs with a laugh. Gibbs is talking about the Lost Highway, an outfit he was in for ten years and which he describes as a “rock ‘n’ roll band with a lot of roots to it.” At the end of the Lost Highway’s decade-long run, Gibbs, who had always written on acoustic guitar and had played his share of one-man shows, decided he wanted to make a solo acoustic record. The result, the home-recorded 49th And Melancholy (released by Flat Earth in 2002), clicked with quite a few people and led to the lifting of that veil of obscurity, or at least a corner or two of it.
49th And Melancholy used spare instrumentation to back Gibbs’ vocals, which strike the perfect balance between gruffness and affability. The album brought to mind the debut discs of Richard Buckner and Malcolm Holcombe, as well as Bap Kennedy, another guy who tested the solo waters after a bunch of band years. It also showcased Gibbs’ knack for sharing observations and anecdotes in a way that pinpoints the spot where the conversational starts to turn into the poetic.
Gibbs’ excellent follow-up, One Day Our Whispers, released in July on Benchmark Records, continues to reveal him as a thinking fella with rural music in his veins. The album starts with “Small Town Saturday Night”, a John Prine-ish tune that nails the scene its title sets. “I like squeakin’ that front porch swing/And bitchin’ ’bout prices of gasoline/That’s what we like to call makin the scene,” sings Gibbs, and you’ll swear you hear both the squeakin’ and the bitchin’. “Daughter Of A Truck Drivin’ Man” comes off as a three-way icon salute. It borrows its melody from Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light”, the Jolene in the chorus just might have wandered out of Dolly Parton’s song, and the “freightliner” references will have you thinking of Townes Van Zandt.
The topics gets a little weightier as the album progresses. “‘The People’s Day’ is nothing more than a picket line song,” offers Gibbs about one of the centerpieces of One Day Our Whispers. “It came about when a friend of mine’s kid was talking about how boring history was. I asked what they were learning about, and everything they were learning about was really boring. There’s so much more to our history that kids don’t learn in school, so I figured I’d throw a few names out there and see if they’d stick on the wall.” (Among them are Emma Goldman, Medgar Evers, and Harvey Milk.)
Taken as a whole, One Day Our Whispers is an optimistic record, a point underscored by some unexpectedly lovely melodies (most notably on “Murder At The Read House” and “Putnam County Girl”) and by songs such as “Ours Is the Time”. “A lot of times we define ourselves by what we’re not, and we bitch and complain and moan about the things that are wrong,” charges Gibbs. “It’s hard to say ‘This is what I am’ and ‘This is what I believe in’ because then you’re open for attack. I’m trying to get to the point in my life where it’s not bad to say ‘Yeah, I believe in this.’ I think a lot of these songs fall into that category.”
Without a doubt, there’s a lot of hope on One Day Our Whispers. In fact, according to the title of the album’s closing track, the night bleeds it. That said, how does one find hope in a climate that often seems to promise anything but?
Gibbs pauses for a couple beats before responding. “Well, that’s a good question. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to watch a little less TV, stay away from church, sit on the porch and scratch the dog’s ear. It’s a form of civil disobedience.”