Eric Bibb has known many different Americas, the good, the bad and the ugly. Born in New York City on August 16th, 1951, the thunderbolt of the Sixties folk revival remains an era so alive in the 69-year-old's memory that he can still recall the idealism on the night air of Greenwich Village and picture Bob Dylan standing in his living room. Yet just as vivid are the dark societal flashpoints of the last year, when protesters highlighted the open wound of US race relations while a bitter Presidential election scrawled jagged battlelines. With his brand new album 'Dear America' out now worldwide (via Mascot Label Group), Gi's Jonathan Graham chats exclusively with the veteran blues singer and songwriter.
Fiercely literate and historically informed, Eric Bibb is a global citizen whose US motherland – with all its pain and shame, hope and wonder – has bled into his art at every juncture since 1972's debut album, Ain't It Grand, announced him as a new force in blues, folk, and any other genre he cared to alight on. But the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has perhaps never addressed the United States – or shone a light on himself – with such focused eloquence as 'Dear America.' "On this record, I'm saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me," Bibb considers. "But it's a self-portrait as well."
If you could call out to your country, what would you say? When Eric Bibb embarked on the title song that would galvanise the 'Dear America' album, the songwriter found himself unpacking a seven-decade relationship with a partner of dramatic extremes. "It's a love letter," he explains of the record's root concept, "because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism. To be American, and particularly to come from New York City, is to be blessed.
"But the definition of love is truth," counters the songwriter. "You have to tell it like it is. There is so much shocking hatred in America at this point, and that aggression and violence is really America's history returning on the rubber band. This album is a real communication, a real attempt to bare my soul, heal hurt and help bring forth a new world. That's what it's all about."
'Dear America' brings Bibb full circle, taking the pulse of these febrile times while returning the songwriter to his proud roots in New York. In November 2019, as the bandleader hit Brooklyn's Studio G to track 'Dear America' with producer/co-writer Glen Scott, a crack studio band and guests including the talismanic drummer Steve Jordan and Memphis guitar sensation Eric Gales, the electricity in the air was palpable. "My home now in Sweden," says Bibb, "But New York City was where I came of age. So to be there, recording this album that had so much to do with my whole journey – it was really inspiring."
Destiny is a glib concept, but from his earliest years, all the signposts were pointing Bibb towards a life less ordinary. His father, the late Leon Bibb, was the big bang that set it all off: a charismatic singer, actor and leader of men, who marched at Selma with Martin Luther King in '65, moved in the orbit of social earth-shakers like Bob Dylan and Paul Robeson (Eric's godfather), and brought home the ethos that art was more powerful when imbued with real life. "My dad was the door to the world that I live in," nods Bibb, who took ownership of his first acoustic guitar aged seven and never put it down. "That whole connection between music and forward-thinking social movements has always been at the bedrock. I never 'decided' I was going to be a writer of socially pointed songs. It was intrinsic. It has to be there. I write what I see."
There were other early touchstones, too, each influence still a strand of Bibb's musical DNA, driving his music far beyond than the 'acoustic blues' tag that only scratches the surface. He reels off an abridged list: "Odetta, Judy Collins, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Motown, Stax, Howlin' Wolf, Bobby Womack, Gabriel Fauré, John Coltrane… it was all in the mix, from the beginning, finding its way into my music. But the earliest music that really impacted me were people like Lead Belly: that kind of song forms, those kind of voices, that kind of language. Woody Guthrie, y'know? That whole era where musicians were intermingling, both African-American and not."
Ducking school to spin records and leaving his studies at Columbia University when the call of music became too strong, Bibb cut his teeth as a performer in the States – you might have seen him everywhere from the house band of TV talent show Someone New to the Negro Ensemble Company at St Mark's Place – but found his voice in Europe and beyond. Paris, Stockholm, London: he laid his hat across the world, his musical antennae always up.
Pre-war blues is a defining shade, but Bibb's musical palette has always been boundless, his distinct voice and questing spirit pulling that genre in bold new directions. In the late-'90s, he made himself a home with Manhaton Records – founded alongside former manager Alan Robinson – and his catalogue began rolling at pace with classics like 1997's Me To You. Featuring both Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples, that album announced that the pioneers were ready to make Bibb a custodian of this music. "I could write a book about Taj," smiles Bibb. "He's been a huge influence, ever since a high school friend bought me The Natch’l Blues album. And, y'know, Mavis, she's been a real beacon for delivering a certain type of American message."
That appetite for collaboration is perhaps the closest thing to a constant in this wonderfully unpredictable career. Bibb operates just fine under his own steam (a multiple winner at the Blues Music Awards, he hesitates to pick out a favourite solo album, although fans might argue the case for the thrilling 2006 release Diamond Days). Yet he has always stood as testament to the power of roots music to blur boundaries, working with artists as eclectic as Michael Jerome Browne, Rory Block, Jean-Jacques Milteau and Danny Thompson, even finding synergy with the kora maestros and griots of Mali and Senegal. 'It's my first trip to West Africa,' goes the lyric of On My Way To Bamako, a highlight of 2012's Brothers In Bamako album with Habib Koité. 'And I'm pretty sure, in some kind of way, it's going to feel like coming home…'
'Dear America' carries that sense of a homecoming, too, not to mention the distinct impression of a career peak. With a title that portentous considers Bibb, the content had better measure up, and the songwriter gave himself the space to pen the most robust material of his life and corral his dream band. "It was a kind of cosmically orchestrated series of events," he reflects. "I was so pleased to record with Ron Carter, who I have an early connection with through my dad. Tommy Sims was all over the sessions, a wonderful bassist who I've worked with before in Nashville. I've played with many great drummers, but Steve Jordan has that authority: it's just about the hit, man. As for Eric Gales on Whole World's Got The Blues – he was just sublime, probably the most powerful electric blues player right now."
Recorded before the pandemic shuttered the world's recording studios, the chemistry on 'Dear America' is palpable, with each musician playing with the emotional commitment demanded by the material. There are lighter songs across the tracklisting, stresses Bibb, pointing to the benevolent chug of the locomotive-themed Talkin'' Bout A Train, or the graceful opener Whole Lotta Lovin', with its heartfelt salute to the American roots music that put him on his path. "It's affectionate and playful," he says of the latter. "In contrast to the heavier material that follows. The reason I wanted Whole Lotta Lovin' to start the album was because if I had to choose one thing about America that I consider an untarnished and glowing gift – it's the music."
Elsewhere, as the new album unfolds, these songs do not pull their punches. Always a writer with a fluid sense of time and place, Bibb slips between US states and seismic eras, chronicling the nation's past and present, for better or worse. On the wistful Emmett's Ghost, he revisits the appalling murder of Emmett Till, whose incendiary lynching in 1955 galvanised the civil rights movement. "That song was written before the George Floyd case," he explains, "but it feels like it has particular resonance right now."
Meanwhile, on the glowering Whole World's Got The Blues, Bibb puts an ear to the ground to tap the street-level malaise in his homeland and beyond. "All you have to do is turn on the news and you see conflict after conflict," he says, ruefully. "I'm talking about violent conflict, and it's global, y'know?"
And yet, just as the human history of the United States has both light and shade, so 'Dear America' is a record that laces its exploration of the nation's most poisonous issues with hope, love and a brighter road ahead. All is not lost, stresses Bibb, and neither are we. As the songwriter departs, for now, with the glad-hearted and glowingly optimistic closing songs, Love's Kingdom and Oneness Of Love, he leaves no doubt that the future is ours to write. "I wouldn't be a town crier for bad news," he says, "if I didn't think that spreading bad news was a step towards getting to good news.
"This album is a love letter," Bibb says again, "because all of America's woes, and the woes of the world, can only come into some kind of healing and balance with that energy we call love. That's my conviction. You see young people now, and it's amazing, with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. All of those things let me know that there is a kind of reverberation from that Sixties energy. You can't keep a good thing down. Now we're at that 'watch and pray' moment, and it's an incredibly inspiring time to be writing songs…"
'Dear America' is out now worldwide via Mascot Label Group.
Eric Bibb – 'Dear America' Tracklist
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