Nashville’s Otis Gibbs on Honky-tonks and Childcare

When Billy Bragg was asked to produce a list of "Top Five Songs with Something to Say," he picked a tune by Otis Gibbs. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter - and photographer, and storyteller, and essayist - has been compared to Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie, and, upon the release of his most recent album, "Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth," he was described by one critic as a "literate hobo" (they meant that as praise). When not making music, Mr. Gibbs sits down with fellow musicians for his podcast, Thanks for Giving a Damn, where the conversations often turn to touring and stories from the road. Here, he shares one of his own.

Photo by Todd Fox

My name’s Otis Gibbs, and I live in East Nashville. I have a new album out called “Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth” and I love hearing other musicians tell their stories. And I like hearing them tell stories than hearing them talk about their records. So in that spirit, I’d like to share a story with you.

I grew up in this little town called Wanamaker, Indiana. It was a little bitty farming community. We had one day a year when all the kids would ride their parents’ tractors to school. We called it Tractor Day.

We were very creative people. I was convinced that we were some kind of an artist colony. I thought that maybe kids all over the world dreamed of one day coming and visiting us, because there were so many creative people in the town.

There were creative people like my grandfather who played bluegrass music, and that’s definitely an art form. There was my dad who liked to sing along with Jerry Lee Lewis records at that top of his lungs every Friday and Saturday night as he got drunk. I think that’s a bit of an art form. And there was a strange woman who lived down the street who liked to come out into the yard and paint pictures completely naked. And as a young teenage boy, I could definitely see the artistic value in that.

My parents would work a couple different jobs apiece trying to make ends meet as many of us do through hard times. And it would fall upon some of the strangest individuals to babysit me during the day. And one of these individuals was my uncle. And he probably wasn’t the best choice to be watching this little bitty kid, because he had just gotten out of prison. And it turned out he wasn’t really my uncle. He was just shacking up with my aunt at the time.

But he would watch me, and he would get really bored watching this little bitty kid every day, so he got this idea. He would take me down to this local honky-tonk saloon. They had an old upright piano in the corner, and he would sit me up on top of that piano, and my legs would dangle off of it, and he would accompany me while I sang Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams songs and stuff like that. And you could just see the drunks raise their glass and sing along with me, say, “Hey, cute kid.” And they’d give me tip money to play whatever their request might be. And then my uncle would take that money and get drunk on it.

That’s when I learned how the music industry actually works. At the end of every day I would say, “Can we please go back again tomorrow?” He’d say, “I’ll take you back, but you have to promise you will not tell your parents what we’re doing.” I was 26 years old when I finally told my parents. They were not happy.