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John Kessler talks with Eric Bibb

Cover of Eric Bibb's "Dear America" album which features a Black man in a field of dirt. He's holding an American flag and a guitar.

Celebrating the release of his new album "Dear America," Grammy-nominated blues singer and songwriter Eric Bibb talks with John Kessler.

A conversation with Eric Bibb
Eric Bibb discuses his latest album 'Dear America' with KNKX's All Blues host John Kessler.
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John Kessler Today we are very pleased to be talking with Eric Bibb, singer, songwriter, guitarist and storyteller. Celebrating the release of his new album Dear America, which features some astounding guest artists, including bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Eric Gales, Billy Branch on harmonica and a wonderful singer named Shaneeka Simon, who I would like to hear a little more about. So Eric, congratulations on the new album. We're playing several songs from it on our All Blues show. So, yeah, so can you tell us about the meaning of the title Dear America?

Eric Bibb Yeah. Well, let's start with the fact that America is dear to me because it's where I was born and raised. I left America the first time on my own at the age of 18 and struck out for Europe and parts further north. And I wanted to let people know that I have been nurtured by so much of what is wonderful about America and its culture. And I also wanted to let my listeners know that I'm aware, even though I live outside of the USA living here in Sweden, I'm very much aware of what is currently happening and what's been going on in the last five years and further back, and that I needed to weigh in on what I feel is a vital conversation. So this is my open love letter to the country of my birth.

JK Were the songs written first, or did the concept come first?

EB The concept evolved as songs were coming in. The title probably came in later after even the song “Dear America” was already kind of a done deal. And then I realized this is this is shaping up to be basically a message to fellow patriots and also to the world who has its eye on America.

JK  It does have the sense even, you know, I know that you live in Europe, but it does have the sense of being written from afar, you know, like a letter. So would you say it's a protest album in some ways or no?

EB  No. I really want to make that clear because I know that particularly in the States, people are going to think of it as such as soon as you get a little bit political. People think, 'Oh, it's a protest album,' whatever that means, I'm not protesting about anything. What I'm doing is weighing in on a vital conversation with my own take on what's going on in America and what's going on in the world. And I hope that people take it in the spirit of a love letter because I care about the country that I come from. I care about the people that have surrounded me for much of my life. And I think there is so much to be gained by really taking a hard, honest look at our history, which we have not done collectively.

JK And I would say that there is there's hope there amidst some of the, you know, the hard lessons like a song, for instance, like “Emmett's Ghost” written about Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955. A very poignant song, and you really reveal your vulnerabilities. So let's talk about some of the guest artists on this album. I'm fascinated that jazz bassist Ron Carter is on here. What's your connection with Ron Carter?

EB Thanks for that wonderful question. By the way, I just met Ron here in Stockholm. He had a gig with his wonderful quartet Foresight just about a week or so ago, and it was great to reconnect with him. The funny thing is is that Ron Carter, legendary iconic bass player known for all of his wonderful recordings, particularly with Miles Davis in the quintet days, Ron Carter was a bassist who my dad hired for the bass chair of his house band when he had a television show in New York called Someone New. This was an NBC program that featured young talent, including a 9-year-old Yo-Yo Ma. Wow. I saw Yo-Yo Ma at 9 years old walk into the studio with his parents and blow everybody away. I was 16. My dad decided to throw me in at the deep end. I was completely out of my depth, but he just thought, 'You know, Eric, you're passionate about music. You've got to get a taste of what it's really like.' And I was capable of reading a simple chart. I was not anywhere in the vicinity of the players that were the rest of the band, including Ron Carter, for the first season, Seldon Powell, an amazing saxophone player who played with everybody. But there I was, you know, surrounded by these veteran musicians and struggling to to keep my head above water. And that was the first time I met personally and played with Ron Carter, and we hadn't had any contact since then. So when we contacted him and his people about being a guest on this album, he of course remembered who my dad was and was up for meeting us in this wonderful studio in Brooklyn. And it was just a wonderful full circle kind of experience and for me to return to New York. I mean, I've been to New York many times and lived there since I originally left, but to return to New York to record a part of this album was it was a milestone experience.

JK  Another artist I was surprised to see on your album is guitarist Eric Gales. I think of more of kind of like on the Jimi Hendrix spectrum of things. I mean, he's one of my favorites, one of the best guitarists on the planet.

EB  I think, you know, Eric is somebody who is hard to describe in words, because he's that amazing. I could go on and on and on about his talent. This is what happened. I was invited to be a featured guest artist on one of Joe Bonamassa’s Blues Cruises, and Eric Gales was also on that same cruise. We went to the Mediterranean, we went to Malta and to Monte Carlo, some other places. Anyhow, when I had a set with my band, my wife happened to capture Eric Gales bopping and dancing to my set on film on her iPhone, which told me something. So when I heard him on his set, I was completely blown away. I knew his name, but I had never really, really heard him. And to hear him live was just like, you know, it was like it was heavy, man. So I went up to him. I said, "Eric, listen, man, I'm crazy about your playing. Would you consider being a guest on my next album?" He said, “It's going to happen.” That's the first thing he said to me. He didn't say anything about it. He just, he said, “It's going to happen.” So it happened. Yeah, he's wild. And he's also so amazingly marinated in all the great music from particularly the African-American genres. You know, I haven't met a modern blues player — and I say modern because he's not that young, but he's young — I haven't met a guy who's absorbed so much of the vocabulary of the old masters and at the same time has his own edge and kind of contemporary out of the box thing. You know what I'm saying? Yeah.

JK  So tell me about singer Shaneeka Simon.

EB Oh, wow. Listen, I have the blessing in my life, not only my personal life, but certainly my musical life of a knowing a great producer. His name is Glen Scott with a Jamaican heritage, born and raised in London. And he's been my producer for many years, and many years ago, he said, "You know, I know an amazing singer. She's out of the church" — and Glen is out of the church, too. His father was a preacher — "and her name is Shaneeka. And let's get her involved on a couple of tracks." So she's appeared on some of my earlier recordings, but never as a featured soloist. And we just knew that this song born of a woman, you know, we thought about other people, but she was at the top of our list, and I hope you're going to hear more of her in her own right because she's starting to really ascend. And we'll see. But she is an amazing singer and a lovely person who has a depth of expression that I don't know. And it reminds me of the greats, you know? I mean, I'm talking about the greats, you know, Aretha, Mavis, all of them. You know, she's there. I don't know a more exciting singer with those chops and that amazing depth of expression.

JK  Yeah, OK, we'll definitely be following her. So let's move on to something that I'm interested in. It sounds, from my point of view, like you had a really stimulating childhood. You grew up amid the New York City folk scene in the 1960s. Your father, Leon Bibb, was a well-known singer, actor and activist. Your house was filled with music and ideas. What's maybe can you tell us, a memory of that time? You were young, you know, a kid. But how did that affect your life as a musician going forward?

EB  Well, because I was in the middle of the New York folk scene through my dad at a time when it was really vibrant and rich and full of soul and also moving into capitalism big time, I really was in a position to hear in concert but also meet in my own home, some of the real luminaries who became luminaries of that scene. So I mean, just a short list, we're talking about Odetta. We're talking about Judy Collins in her home. We're talking about Bob Dylan in my own home. We're talking about me seeing Son House, the Newport Folk Festival. We're talking about a rehearsal where my dad is playing in a loft in Greenwich Village with Eric Weisberg from “Dueling Banjos” fame and Deliverance fame. Billy on Bass, Spike Lee's dad. And I didn't know it at the time how rich it was going to, you know, look to the world. But I knew it was happening, and I really knew it was happening. And my dad and my mom were aware of my passion and let me at the age of 11, travel from Queens, you know, one and a half hours on the subway, bus and subway into Washington Square Park on my own with my guitar, my little guitar on Sundays and just absorb.

JK You've been traveling the world for decades. A troubadour really is a good description of you. How has the pandemic enforced isolation affected you?

EB Wonderful question, of course, because it's affected everybody and musicians in a very special way. I must say having great empathy for my colleagues who have suffered because they haven't been able to work, they haven't been able to support themselves and families in the way that they're used to. Because I'm a songwriter and royalties do come in even when you're not on the road, I have not suffered in that way. And I can also add that after 20 years of constant touring, the time at home has been incredibly beneficial for me in many ways that I could go on and on. But partly because you need time to actually look at your own journey and assess what you've done, what you haven't done, what you want to do and also rest. Because man, I can tell you don't realize it when you're in the stream of it, you know, going from hotel to airport to soundcheck, but being able to stop and actually catch up with yourself in real time and have a routine home life, that was really something that had eluded me for so long. I realize how beneficial that can be. And we had a Patreon page up for almost a year and a half that kept me weekly posting a mini concert, so I was keeping my chops and my voice together. And not only that, having a blessed opportunity to actually recall songs that I'd forgotten that I'd even written. Not only that they exist, but figure out how to play them again and rearrange them. And so I got to say this period of downtime has been incredibly nutritious for me.

JK Well, I'm glad to hear that. And if the album is any indication, it has been a well-spent year. We're talking with Eric Bibb celebrating the release of his new album Dear America, released at the beginning of September. And I want to say, Eric, thank you so much for talking with us. I know you're really busy and we'll be playing this album for, I think, a few months now. So we really wish you the best, and come see us if you're ever in Seattle.