by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Caitlin Fogle
PrologueThe best stories always start with a breakup. You can see that in Jack Gibson’s eyes when he talks about it. You can hear it when his voice trails off as his thoughts drift to what once was. And you can sense it when he measures each word before placing it in his sentences. The “it” in question is a pointed fondness he holds for his days as a member of the popular band 15th and Hulman. A three-man act comprised of a symbiotic duo of acoustic guitars and the soft tones of an electric bass, the band captivated central and western Indiana for more than half a decade with a smooth mixture of harmony and an endearing sort of “stage presence.”
You only had to catch them once. You only had to sit one time at your pub table, caressing your cool glass of Dragonfly, as Gibson stood beside you, serenading you and your date to the chords of the Little River Band. While he casually sang into the black, wireless microphone hovering in front of his lips, you caught notice of the reverberating echoes from bandmates Jay Carpenter and Bill Goodrich circulating in the air above him. It entranced you. First the novelty of it: three guys, no drums, no hard guitars. Then the spirit of it: the passion for theater art compounded with the auditory effects of a musical slide-show. There are the cover bands you forget, the ones who make ambient sound. And there was 15th and Hulman.
Of course, Jack Gibson’s story is more than a single episode in his recent past. But if Shakespeare’s wisdom about the past’s role as prologue holds water, then you must consider that when you think about Gibson. You have to look at the future arc of the local singer’s story through the lens of his experience anchoring that amazing group.
Three Men–Three Guitars
“We still talk about this,” Gibson says (with that aforementioned note of fondness). “We’re all still good friends, and we think there will be a time when we get back together again. Right now is not the right time for that. Jay is with [a Terre Haute band called the] MacDaddy’s, and he doesn’t want to change that. We know that someday we’ll all be open again, and then we’ll see what happens. But no one is going to leave what we have right now to do something like that.”
Things unraveled as they always do with bands. Creative differences. Powerful and dominant personalities. A realization that—to keep life-long friendships—distances must be formed. It’s a story played out across a wide range of stages from under the glaring lights of the Hollywood Bowl to the hardwood floors of the Alabama Tavern.
“We had this niche, but we didn’t realize it,” he explains. “So we were always trying to ‘find’ the niche we thought [we were missing]. We were three guys making it sound like a full band. Jay played his guitar percussively, I would play the rhythm and leads, and we had a three-part harmony. We were so worried about finding that thing that would make us stand out, but it was right there in front of us all the time.”
Donovan Wheeler: How did you guys evolve into this unique, local phenomenon?
Jack Gibson: “We went to Nashville all the time, and one of our favorite bands down there was a group called Savannah Jack. They entertained crowds in all kinds of ways, and we got a lot of ideas watching them—ideas we brought back home and used with our crowds.”
DW: You’re talking about things such a dropping the National Anthem into the middle of a gig, or stringing songs together in a sort of mix-session.
JG: “Often we wouldn’t even play a whole song. You can ask anybody: ‘What are the words to the Doobie Brothers’ ‘Listen to the Music?’ and they won’t know. They can sing you the chorus, but they don’t know the verses. So we would string choruses from a few songs together so that we could get everybody singing and entertain people so much that—if they were having a bad day—they would stop thinking about it.”
DW: And this also includes moving off the stage and working among the crowd.
JG: “At first I was the only one walking out on the crowd, and we realized that this was working so well, that we should all do that. We got ourselves some wireless mikes, we’d start the show on the stage, and sometimes—after a few lead songs—we’d never get back to the stage. Everybody had a front seat at that point.”
DW: I have to say, it was strange how comfortable the experience was, watching you sing to us next to our seats.
JG: “People always told me I could get away with anything, because I wasn’t a threat to anybody [laughs]. I was just this really nice guy. I could walk up to a girl and sing her a love song in front of her boyfriend, and he’d be okay with it. Now, you get somebody else doing that, and there probably would have been a fight, but I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to do”
“People always told me I could get away with anything, because I wasn’t a threat to anybody. I was just this really nice guy. I could walk up to a girl and sing her a love song in front of her boyfriend, and he’d be okay with it.”
In the Heart of Music City
As they grew their act in Indiana, their Tennessee trips continued. At first for enjoyment, for camaraderie, and to scout out ideas. Eventually they submitted an online audition to Tootsies, the “World Famous Orchid Lounge” tucked in near the Ryman Auditorium. Tootsies’ history is a rich one. The names of country music’s greats—from the pioneers such as Jim Reeves to the iconic stalwarts such as George Jones—have etched their own biographies behind those doors. When Gibson, Carpenter, and Goodrich crossed the threshold, however, they weren’t greeted with admiration and aplomb, they were instead offered 45-minutes.
JG: “At that time, they only had two stages: the main stage and a smaller one upstairs—which is where they sent us. Bands came through there all day long, [and we didn’t have much time to make an impression]. I asked the man in charge if he wanted us to play traditional country, and he said, ‘You boys just play what you want to play.’ Well, this was Tootsies. In Nashville, Tennessee. We went in there thinking we were going to do Merle Haggard, but after he said that, we decided at the last minute to do our own thing. We stepped up there started with Haggard and moved to Prince then to the Doobie Brothers and all kinds of rock in between.”
Their set halfway finished, the trio played on to an empty room…save a lone sound technician who rarely pulled his eyes off the board in front of him. Through the doors beside them, the next band began stacking their gear, folding their arms, impatiently tapping their feet.
JG: “[We’re winding down our set and announcing our final two songs, when] the sound guy tell us, ‘John wants you to keep playing.’ I said, ‘Well, there’s this band back here waiting for us to leave…’ and he said, ‘Don’t you worry about that band. You keep playing.’ Then they opened the doors, and an actual crowd filed in. We transitioned from an audition to an actual gig inside an hour, and when an employee walked up and set up a big tip jar in front of us, that’s when I thought, ‘We’re in.’ We played that night for four hours.”
The trio would establish themselves to a degree in the Music City, earning a regular, weeknight gig and modestly shaking up the local industry standard with their tight-knit unit and their emphasis on harmony. That weekly stint, however, wasn’t a relocation. It was a commute. Back in the Hoosier state, their day lives continued, as did their local gigs on the weekends. They made enough—as Gibson recalls—for food, gas, and hotel rooms…with a little bit left over for the trips home. But the grind eventually did what all grinds do. As the pressure to “find the next thing” grew, the group started to experiment, chasing a “Trop Rock” vein hoping to parley it into winter work along a southern beach. It didn’t send them to Florida, but a couple songs caught on over Internet radio. They even offered up “their favorite drink” (“It was horrible,” Gibson recalls grimacing at the thought of it) for a chapter in 2012’s Cooking with the Trop Rock Stars.
A Little Boy in a Leisure Suit
Like most middle-aged musicians, Gibson has been performing in one way or another his entire life. Part of a generation which emerged in the classic rock milieu of the Carter-Reagan era, Gibson wears all the earmarks of his time—the occasional bandana wrapping his head as he straddles a Harley Davidson and the comfortable pair of blue jeans. But he’s most comfortable and most notable, when he’s sporting his strings.
JG: “My aunt, uncle, and mother had a gospel-bluegrass band, so I grew up listening to them. They would play the Cataract Community Building and some places in Indy. At one point—when I was something like four-years-old and wearing a miniature leisure-suit—they put me in front of the mic. I had to stand on a chair, and the first song I ever sang in front of an audience was ‘Ocky-Top,’ because I couldn’t quite pronounce the ‘R’ at that age.”
JG: “After that, my parents got me a little guitar. So when they would practice, I would go sit in the corner and sound horrible as I played along with them. My uncle taught me my first three chords, and I took it from there.”
DW: When did you start to take on more ownership of your work as a performer?
JG: “I played in my first band when I was 15-years-old. It was Shelia May and the Country High Tones. She went to South Putnam, and someone told me there was a girl in the music room who was in a band. Well, that got me excited. I thought, ‘That’s really cool! I’ve never met anybody in band before.’ She had me play a song, and I was in. We played a lot of lodges. My parents would drive me around from one gig to another [laughs].”
After high school, Gibson stayed in the local music scene, including time in the ‘80’s with his close friends Rob Tilford and Darin Hayes. But when the two men tragically died in an automobile accident in the early ‘90’s, Gibson and his grieving friends did the logical thing musicians do to cope with the loss.
JG: “We formed a band. [We decided to record an album first, but] we never played [as a band] until we went to Nashville [to cut the record]. I was so excited when I heard we were putting this band together. At the time, I was with another band at the time (Jackie Lynn and the Heartland Express), and we were in Florida. During my down time I would go out to the beach, sit on these big rocks, and I started writing songs. They were coming left and right. I was writing music for a band that didn’t even exist yet.”
JG: “For our first show we ordered 1,000 CD’s and 500 cassette tapes. We sold all of the CD’s inside of six months, but I believe there’s probably a half-box of cassettes still sitting somewhere. A couple of our songs made it to Hi-99. By the time all the chatter got back to us, we figured we were aired out on about 14 different stations.”
Headquartered in Terre Haute, Tilford-Hayes—the new group’s apropos moniker—would play most frequently at BJ’s Lounge, located in the city’s south side…on the corner of 15th and Hulman Streets.
“Someone told me there was a girl in the music room who was in a band. Well, that got me excited. I thought, ‘That’s really cool! I’ve never met anybody in band before.'”
Back on His Own
When Tilford-Hayes finished its run, Gibson rebooted. Worked alone on occasion, teamed up with buddies and acquaintances at times as well. Today he is working through another transition. Shortly after Carpenter’s departure from 15th and Hulman, Gibson and Goodrich tried various incarnations in an effort to keep the act running. The magic, however, was gone. It was time to move on.
DW: Your new solo CD, Jack Unplugged, is your first recording since the ’94 Tilford-Hayes album. Why did so much time pass between records?
JG: “I worked a few songs here and there over the years…mostly Christian songs, but I spent most of those years playing covers.”
DW: Out of professional necessity?
JG: “Yes. I’ve always wanted to write and play original work, but you’re going to be busy performing cover-songs. People want to go out, and they want to dance to ‘Sweet Home, Alabama’ and the songs that they know. I’m a full-time musician. So trying to make on original material in this part of the country…probably not going to happen.”
JG: “I had written a lot of songs which were unrecorded, and there were a lot of reasons for that: I was busy with one band or another, the music I was playing didn’t fit the stuff I had written, and—to be honest—I didn’t have the funding, either.”
DW: Does the fact that you’re aging factor into this as well?
JG: “I’m 53-years-old now. I was getting frustrated. For one thing, I felt like I was playing the same cover tunes. For another thing, the people who come to see me are mostly my age. They don’t stay out very long, and don’t go out as much as they used to. When you do this for a living, you’re always looking for that hook which will draw more people.”
JG: “But once I considered my age and realized that I didn’t know how much longer I would be able to play, that’s when I decided that I needed to get more work on a CD. Leaving something for my kids and grandkids.”
DW: What’s on this new record? What are we going to find when we give it a listen?
JG: “Two of the songs are ones I’ve brought back from ’94. One of them, ‘A Letter to My Friends,” is my tribute to Rob [Tilford] and Darin [Hayes], and the other one is a song called “Her New Style.”
DW: Do you remember how those came about? I’m trying to get a sense of your songwriting process.
JG: “I was home doing the dishes, when I heard a voice in my head say, ‘Get a pen and some paper.’ So I dried off my hands, grabbed something to write with, and wrote [“A Letter to My Friends”]—with the music in my head in something like five minutes. It was given to me.”
DW: And what about “Her New Style”?
JG: “I wrote that one on the rock. It’s not a mushy love song, but it expresses those things that guys want to do to impress the people they love.”
For his part, Gibson is embracing the new century’s recording opportunities with the most open of arms. Besides his own solo effort, he’s finishing work on an album with Lonesome Train—a country-blues side project he often performs with at venues such as Indy’s Slippery Noodle. Additionally, he’s cutting a gospel record, and has also reunited with Carpenter to record under the name Clay Souls.
“Jay and I sang together for years,” Gibson says of his long-time friend. “We have that thing I like to call ‘brother harmony.’ I would say that out of everyone I’ve played with, Jay and I are the closest. We’ve always stuck together. We did a lot of duo work before and after our time with 15th and Hulman. And when we were with Tilford-Hayes we opened for a lot bands.”
It’s hard to determine which project excites Gibson the most. When he speaks of playing solo, he admits that he has to make himself like it, “I like being around people,” he explains. He’s certainly fascinated with the Lonesome Train endeavor: an effort which began as an attempt to fashion the work of poet Pat Kelly to music. Whether he sustains his attention on all four projects or eventually gravitates to one or two doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Jack Gibson has done what all good musicians have to do: he’s rebounded. In the process he’s taken his talent, pressed it onto plastic, and has ushered it into posterity. So indeed, one day he will be able flip on the disc-player, turn to his grandchildren, and tell them, “That’s me.” He’ll also be able to say that to the rest of us, and we’ll all be the better for it.