You could call Otis Gibbs and Stephen Yerkey outlaw singer-songwriters, but not because they're prone to rebellious behavior. No, it's that they're so good at what they do, it's criminal. And that they're not better known is a crime. Both write songs that, while conversational in style, have little time for clutter and small talk, a disarming flow of ideas revealing itself in stories and expertly imagined scenes. Ready or not, they're going to make you think.
"I don't really like to preach. I'm not the kind of guy that stands on stage and berates people," offers Gibbs via telephone from his home in Indianapolis, having just returned after a helping-hand trip to New Orleans organized by Indianapolis construction workers. "But I'll sing songs about whatever I feel."
At the end of a 10-year run leading the roots-rock band The Lost Highway, Gibbs decided to make a solo acoustic record in 2002. The resulting, home-recorded 49th and Melancholy and its more hushed setting spotlighted Gibbs' knack for observations and anecdotes. Gibbs stands at the spot where plain talk turns into poetry, presented in a voice on the right side of rough.
2004's One Day Our Whispers continued down that path, with Gibbs' "sing songs about what I feel" oath reaching full fruition. A self-proclaimed "picket line song" stood, fittingly, next to a shot of unapologetic optimism.
"That record had a few opinions about the way the world is, and I met a lot of people who agreed with them," says Gibbs of Whispers. "Sometimes, your ideas can turn other people on that have the same ideas, and they can celebrate those ideas through the music."
He is currently looking for a home for 12 songs recorded in Nashville with producer Chris Stamey and a band that featuring Don Dixon, Will Rigby, Tim Easton and well-traveled pedal steel man Al Perkins. "I never thought I'd wake up in a Beto Junction truck stop with a steering wheel in my side," Gibbs sings with a voice 800 miles from home on "Beto Junction," the collection's centerpiece. Somehow, it feels like the first song ever written about a truck stop.
"Thinking man's country" is a label that's been suggested for Gibbs' work, and that'd also fit for the limited output of Stephen Yerkey, who's actually been making music even longer. Like Gibbs, Yerkey started in a band, the San Francisco-based Nonfiction, before hitting the solo trail. His 1994 debut, Confidence, Man, is a lost classic waiting to be rediscovered by fans of Richard Buckner and Townes Van Zandt. It's the kind of record that one drops in a conversation about lost classics, hoping no one else has actually heard it.
The album hits hard throughout, from the appropriately chugging (and mariachi-visited) "Where Cash Is King" to the elegiac "I Just Haven't Laid Down Yet," but it's the opening lines of "Maker's mark" that are the most telling: "I've got my Maker's mark on me, but I move under my own power." Like all the best singer-songwriters, outlaw or otherwise, Yerkey is blessed with both supreme skills and the gumption to carve his own path. And it's a path that he and Otis Gibbs walk, solo, confidently.
Otis Gibbs and Stephen Yerkey are at The Pour House on Sunday, June 25. The music starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door.