There’s some music you can have playing in the background and there is music that requires your complete attention. Mount Renraw by Otis Gibbs is not for multi-taskers. In return Gibbs will make you think and leave you with some deep and lasting images. As he puts it himself in his podcast, ‘all I want is for people to listen to my music, and get lost in it just like I did as a kid’.
Like much of its content, the record’s creation is unusual. Instead of marking his 50th birthday with a party in his house, Gibbs recorded this album. So what do you get for coming to his alternative party? Quite simple; you get 10 stories, each one lasting no more than three minutes although it seems as if you had been listening to a master story-teller for hours.
Recurring features of these stories are travelling, people and history sung in a voice that rasps with feeling in a way that reminds me of Steve Earle. That’s not to say Gibbs is a copy. Far from it, he brims with originality but both share an eye for picking up detail, particularly in the songs about places.
While the album merits close attention to all songs, my picks in each category are;
The opening song, ‘Great American Roadside’ couldn’t be about anything but travelling. Gibbs sings not just about places and sights but that almost addictive element of travelling, the urge to see what’s around the next corner,’ straight through the heart of the states, to see what awaits on the great American roadside’. Among the sights quoted are a two headed cow and the world’s largest ball of twine. This is a song of late night diners where ‘the coffee isn’t as hot as the waitress’. You get the picture. After listening to ‘800 miles’ you feel as if you’ve been on every last mile of that journey with the loneliness of the road burnt into your being.
The people in these songs are as vivid as the places; the best example is ‘Sputnik Monroe’, about a wrestler in New Orleans. He had a tough life but he was ‘standing on the right side of history’ when he withdrew his services until the promoters stopped segregating the audiences. ‘Kathleen’ is a long-lost love who fell on hard times but hearing Gibbs’s heartfelt recollections, could be rekindled.
As with places and people Gibbs can put great swathes of history into three minutes; ‘Bison’ tells of the great beast’s extinction. ‘Empire Hole’ compares the widespread export of Indiana’s limestone to those who left the state, ‘Indiana’s hole in the ground’. As a Hoosier himself who moved away, Gibbs feels guilt at leaving home but pays tribute to both those who stayed behind and others who also sought a life beyond the state line.
Even the record’s title has a story; ‘Renraw’ is the surname in reverse of the first owner of the land where Gibbs has his house who brought electricity to much of the southern states. There is no electric music here though, the only accompaniment is sparing but beautifully complementary guitar and fiddle. This is poetry set to music.