In the accompanying press release for his seventh album Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth, Otis Gibbs, from Wanamaker, Indiana, writes about how much his father, a blue collar worker, influenced the songs while the title is lifted directly from how, when he retired, he described his lifetime legacy of ‘a worn out back, a bad shoulder and a cheap certificate in a cardboard frame.’
A whisky and gravel voiced songwriter whose work regularly addresses social and political issues, Gibbs says he inherited his father’s low tolerance for bullshit, something that fuelled the guiding principle in the writing of the album, that the only things that matter in art are the person making it and the person experiencing it.
As such, these songs speak directly from one life to another, as, for example, on the opening Cuzmina, its 80 second Appalachian fiddle intro giving way to an account of crossing Romania’s Carpathian Mountains in a snowstorm, picking up a nine year old hitchhiker and learning her family’s tragic story. The aged boxer Gibbs used to live next door to as a kid is the touchstone for Ghost Of Our Fathers, a Springsteenesque storysong inspired by finding the son’s name on the Vietnam Memorial, bringing back memories of both his father and Gibbs’ own.
Childhood experiences also inform With a Gun In My Hand in which he poignantly finds himself finally able to confess how he was torn between wanting to be by his father’s side in the woods when he went hunting and the fact that he hated the idea of killing animals for “sport”.
Fastforwarding across the decades, the remaining personal lyric is found on the singalong chorus-friendly Rust On My Spade, an old-school rootsy reminiscence of the ten years he spent planting trees (7,176 of them apparently) with just a shovel and sweat.
Elsewhere, the lives of others find their way into the songs. Two are loosely based on stories told by hobo friends around Midwestern campfires: with its melody sounding a lot like Gentle On My Mind, the banjo-accompanied The Darker Side Of Me tells about a drifter working two months on a salmon fishing boat and then being told by the captain that he’s not getting paid while the rhythm chugging It Was A Train rolls along familiar lyrical tracks.
The warm, easy-rolling Back In My Day Blues finds an indolently preoccupied Frankie thinking back on old times through rose tinted memories to the sound of a brushed snare and Fats Kaplin’s pedal steel, a girl sits alone in the relaxed country-blues Kokomo Bar, waiting for a man who’ll never turn up as a musician sings to the backs of chairs for a crowd that doesn’t care while, channelling Tom Russell’s Gallo del Cielo, Nancy Barnett tells the presumably true story of the titular character’s grandson facing down the road construction company looking to disturb her grave for a new highway.
The remaining track, the fiddle waltzing Wrong Side of Gallatin, is the only non-original, although, given it’s written by and features vocals by long time partner Amy Lashley (who originally recorded it on her Travels of a Homebody) and sings about a dodgy sounding local Nashville neighbourhood, it remains firmly in house.
A regular visitor to Europe and the UK, Gibbs has been gradually expanding his audience since releasing Grandpa Walked A Picket Line four years ago. This, if not his best then certainly his most immediate, should finally bring long overdue wider acclaim.
Review by: Mike Davies
UK Tour Dates
22 – Islington, (London) Pull Up The Roots @ The Old Queen’s Head (Tickets)
23 – Biddulph (Staffordshire) The Biddulph Arms
24 – Bury (Greater Manchester) The Met
25 – Doncaster The Roots Music Club @ Doncaster Ukrainian Centre
26 – Broseley (Shropshire) The Birchmeadow
27 – Nottingham – The Maze @ The Forest Tavern
Released by the Wanamaker Recording Company, out now
Order via Amazon