Otis Gibbs Is Happy to Be Home

Otis Gibbs

Photo by Todd Fox

Otis Gibbs never wants to come across as something he’s not.

“I’m a very imperfect person, and I can let the music be that also,” says the Indiana native and alt-country singer-songwriter. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly in tune. You don’t try to be out of tune, but you allow yourself to be a human being and maybe it’ll sound like humans playing instruments.”

His approach to making records is shaped by restraint. “I really am a fan of using limitations as a way to fuel creativity,” he says. For Hoosier National, Gibbs’ latest collection of songs that showcase his trademark lyrical storytelling, Gibbs used an old Les Paul he’s had since the ‘80s, strung with heavy gauge strings and plugged into a 1963 Princeton Tuxedo amp. It’s his first-ever album featuring exclusively electric guitars.

“I just plugged straight into it, turned it way up and thought, ‘This sounds cool,’” Gibbs says. “I would try to play with my fingers on every song and not use a pick, because you play differently. It’s weird, but you get that thumb going on the down strokes and the up strokes on your fingers, and you can kind of feel Lightnin’ Hopkins coming through you.”

In addition to being a stylistic departure, the record also coincides with the songwriter’s return home to Indiana after living in Nashville for over a decade. On Friday, Oct. 23, Gibbs will celebrate the album’s release with a socially distanced outdoor show at Indy’s Hi-Fi Annex commemorating his hometown return.

“Coming home is a beautiful thing, and I feel like this record has a lot to do with that,” Gibbs says. “We love the East Nashville neighborhood and everything, but we missed so many people we care about here.”

On songs like “Fountain Square Stare” and “Panhead”, the Indy native paints pictures of Central Indiana life, as his seasoned rasp saunters over Americana-style arrangements.

In addition to Gibbs and his Les Paul, Hoosier National also features a murderer’s row of your favorite musicians’ favorite musicians—including bassist Mark Fain, who’s worked with Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, and Tom Petty, guitarist Thomm Jutz (Nanci Griffith, Mary Gauthier), drummer Lynn Williams (The Wallflowers, Delbert McClinton, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), and pianist Jen Gunderman (Sheryl Crow, The Jayhawks, Steve Cropper).

“With every project I go into, I’ll have parameters, just so I can stay focused and create this universe that somebody can step inside of temporarily,” Gibbs says. “Most of these people play at a really high level anyway. So with these parameters, it helps them focus on what the record will be.”

Gibbs was born in the small, southeast Indianapolis community of Wanamaker and grew up in a humble, working class household. He described listening to Jerry Lee Lewis records in his childhood, as well as his grandfather playing bluegrass. “He played guitar like Maybelle Carter’s scratch, and he thought she was the greatest guitar player in the world,” Gibbs says of his grandfather.

It wasn’t until Gibbs was in his 20s, however, that he became a working musician. Long before the neighborhood became the hotspot it is today, he remembers living in Fountain Square with an interesting cast of characters.

“I lived in Fountain Square in ’89,” he says. “There were 11 of us living in a house there. We painted all the walls black and the windows black and red. There was a heroin dealer in the yard back behind us, and people would sit out there and shoot up. The neighbors thought that we were devil worshippers so they were afraid to mess with us. It was stupidity, but it was something different.”

From Fountain Square Gibbs migrated to Broad Ripple, where he says he came into his own as a musician. Gibbs spent a lot of time—both onstage and behind the scenes—at the Patio, the much-beloved music venue on Guilford Avenue that closed its doors in 2005.

“I worked at the Patio for a few years—I was their door guy,” he says. “I also played there 107 times. I was the last person to ever play at the Patio. That was the first interesting, important part of my life.”

While Indy shows came in bunches for Gibbs, he says music never truly seemed like a possible career path until he started cultivating an overseas fan base. “I used to plant trees for 10 years here in Indy,” he says. “I just thought that’s what I would do forever, and then some people started digging my music overseas.”

That first taste of overseas success came while playing a festival in Newcastle, England, where he opened for Guy Clark. “I sold everything instantly and was treated like a king,” he says. This experience led him to keep going back overseas again and again, opening for acts like Billy Bragg and Ian Hunter.

Now that he’s built that base of dedicated fans across Europe, he hopes his regular slate of touring abroad can pick back up in 2021.

“We’re hoping to be able to go back in April and that we can get this shit together,” Gibbs says. “I thought it would all be taken care of by now. But I’ve just been trying to stay home and be part of the solution.”

If it weren’t obvious from the title, the concept of “home” hangs heavily over Hoosier National. When Gibbs and his partner first made the decision to move to East Nashville several years ago, the 54-year-old songwriter felt uneasy about the change in his relationship with his hometown.

“I felt guilty at first,” he says. “I thought if I said anything nice about Nashville then I was shitting on Indianapolis, and I didn’t like that.”

But after finding his bearings in the country music mecca, Gibbs found himself loving the company. “I could sit down and just talk to people, and they would tell me direct stories about Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard,” he says. “That’s good quality of life stuff.”

It was Gibbs’ Nashville conversations that led to the start of his podcast, Thanks for Giving A Damn, where musicians, journalists and historians share memories, backstage stories and history lessons from their time in the music trenches. Following his podcast’s success, Gibbs has since been involved in other music-related media projects, including a series from Pandora called Country Built that recounts the history of country music.

Still, Gibbs doesn’t necessarily attribute his success in his career with his time in Nashville.

“The years in Nashville were really fun and great, but the good things that have happened for me had absolutely nothing to do with living in Nashville,” he says.

“They would’ve happened for me if I would’ve stayed in Indiana. The only thing that may have been different is I wouldn’t have started the podcast, just because I wouldn’t have believed that I could do it if I lived in Indiana. But I could have done it.”

Gibbs says that’s why he’s excited to be back home. He’s hoping to set an example for younger artists looking to make a name for themselves in the Hoosier State.

“I wanted to come back,” he says. “I wanted people to know there are people like me that live in Indianapolis, whatever that even means.”

If there’s somebody 23 years old who’s trying to sort out what they want to do, I could be an example of somebody who did something interesting from Indiana and chooses to live in Indiana.”