Q&A with Eric Bibb: Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music (Part 2)

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The following is a transcription of an interview with Eric Bibb about his participation in Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music. 

How about your choices regarding instrumentation and players for the album—what were you thinking there?

ERIC: My thoughts from the beginning were that this was about getting your fingernails into the soil, and that it had to reflect a rural sensibility. The instruments I chose—like guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro—are all connected to folk music, the stuff that you could find on somebody’s back porch when neighbors are sitting around. The idea of neighbors seems really prevalent in Wendell’s writing, and so the idea of having instruments that were basically in the community for informal music-making sessions was the way to go.

You have Kentucky roots yourself—what is your Kentucky connection?

ERIC: My dad was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, with relatives in many other parts of rural Kentucky. I think that my family had something to do with the fact that there is something called “Bibb” lettuce. They were agrarian folks. I can really feel Wendell’s love for a certain Southern cordiality and respect for one’s neighbors, and taking time to do something properly, not necessarily because you’re going to get a Nobel prize for it, but because that’s what people did to keep their communities together. They did the job well, they pitched in, they cared about their neighbors, they cooked for their neighbors, they shared food in times of need. My grandmother was a famous, famous roll-maker—she made good biscuits too, but her rolls were different and famous in her church community. She knew it and she took pride in it. And every Sunday she would bake two batches of rolls and choose a member of her congregation to receive the second batch as a gift.

When you think back over the arc of the project, what were the highlights?

ERIC: One of the most joyous parts of the project was the initial feeling that “this is going to work, this is going to get my juices going, I’m not going to have to struggle here, and I’m going to get help from my muse!” I got that very early on in the project.

And the next really joyous pinnacle was meeting Olli Haavisto, who was not only a great engineer, but a wonderful musician, and whose musical sensibilities were right in sync with the songs. So I had a collaborator and a partner in this right from the beginning, who was like-minded and supportive of the whole idea—it really was “two heads are better than one.”

And then the next high point was to work another incredible musician, Petri Hakala. I was happy with the songs, but the addition of Petri as an instrumentalist and co-arranger meant that the songs could be come art songs. They grew into ‘folky art songs’, which is my background in a nutshell, anyway. (I fell in love with European art songs, Fauré, and so forth, in music school.) Creating these folky art songs blended something a bit highbrow (by which I only mean that there are elements in the harmonies that stretch the envelope of Americana folk music) with materials that tap more directly into folk roots. Petri helped make that happen.

This project was like a mirror. It showed me parts of my own musical upbringing that I hadn’t been in touch with for some time, perhaps because I’ve been focusing on my own career via voluntary limitations in terms of genre. This brought me back to my earliest days, when I was being exposed to a lot of different elements and experimenting. So it was joyous in that way because it reminded me of a lot of things I had left behind, but which had given me a lot of pleasure while growing up.

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