Otis Gibbs may be the coolest folk singer working today. Beyond his exceptional "Thanks for Giving a Damn" podcast and recordings (all of which may be essential listening, but consider "Grandpa Walked A Picket Line" and "Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth" if you aren't already among the converted), Gibbs is responsible for some of the best "Overheard in East Nashville" tweets encountered.
For a guy who hasn't the slightest idea of what he is doing - but who is doing it anyway - Gibbs cuts a mighty impressive figure. His eighth album, named for his East Nashville home, was recorded as a celebration of his 50th birthday. Joined by friends Justin Moses (fiddle) and Thomm Jutz (co-producer/guitar) Gibbs presents his latest songs - which explore and uncover hidden corners of Americana - unadorned from his living room.
Considering America's ongoing tradition of bulldozing the slightly-aged to replace with the new, "Bison" cuts to the quick, documenting the calculated extermination of the greatest prairie mammal. "The old ones tell of a day when there will come a distant roar, and a stampede of bison 10 million head or more, will trample this city into memories and dust..." is just one of many memorable and poetic passages across "Mount Renraw." Elevating the song, Gibbs ties history to his experience wandering his yard, considering how the land and his country would have been different had other decisions been made.
The chorus-free "Great American Roadside" allows us to accompany Gibbs as he tours a changed country, a collection of observances from Plains, Ga. peanut statues and wigwam hotels to Babe the Blue Ox and diners where "the waitress is hot, but the coffee is not." The workingman anthem "Empire Hole" shares a different perspective of the America of previous decades.
"Lucy Parsons" is a beauty of a love ballad. Lacking nostalgic hindsight, "Kathleen" is possibly as personal a song Gibbs' delivers; "I kept the secret of what went down" hints at missed opportunity and thankless sacrifice. "Blues for Diablo" is even darker as the devil, surrounded by children, sits on a park bench and, later, scratching a stray dog's ear all the while "the bullets rain down."
Across his albums, Gibbs' greatest gift has been educating listeners about previously unknown history. "Sputnik Monroe" is one of those lessons, telling the tale of a southern wrestler integral in desegregating Memphis sporting events. While the lyrical details are sharp, the catchy melody resonates at least as intently.
Gruff-voiced at best, no one is going to mistake Otis Gibbs for a Nashville hit-maker. Still, the guy can sing the hell out of song and simultaneously makes the listener give a damn about his chosen characters and circumstances.